Mudsills and Trump

I’ve been trying to understand the Trump presidency for four years. Not so much trying to understand what it is doing, other than sowing chaos, but rather, trying to understand how it could have come about, and how it almost got extended another four years.

It has made no sense to me at all, up until a very recent addition to my personal library1. I still haven’t finished reading it — I’ve subtitled it, “The most uncomfortable book I’ve ever read,” and I can’t manage more than a chapter or two before I have to lay it down and think. Sometimes weep. But it has brought an unexpected, pellucid clarity to my mind.

To discuss why Trump was elected President in 2016, we have to start a little over five centuries ago: the year 1493 to be precise.

I should set the stage: the Gutenberg moveable-type printing press is only a half-century old. Lorenzo di Medici, patron of the Italian Renaissance, is just a year in his grave, and Florence is burning under Savonarola. The Spanish Inquisition has just begun torturing Conversos. Copernicus, the man who will remove the Earth from the center of the universe, is a young man of twenty. Martin Luther, who will be called the father of Protestantism, is a lad of ten. King Henry the Eighth of England, the first Protestant King, is in his swaddling cloths. William Shakespeare’s father will be born in about 40 years.

This is the late Middle Ages, a time of rising kings and walled cities and peasants and pestilent fleas, where the Catholic Church reigns forever — for a few more years, at least — supreme in its decadence upon the ruins of the fallen Western Roman Empire.

The year 1493 was the year of Christopher Columbus’ second voyage, consisting of seventeen ships, roughly fifteen hundred colonists, priests bent on converting the “savages” to the Catholic faith, and soldiers and adventurers seeking rape and murder and gold and slaves.

From the very beginning, the European incursion into the Americas was marked by violence and slavery.

Over the next two centuries, a caste system formed in the North American colonies, much like the caste system of India in all its essential features.

African slaves were preferred in the US to work the fields, as they were physically strong, and more resistant to malaria and other tropical diseases that were endemic to the Southern colonies: they were considered the better investment. The Dutch, French, and Portuguese slave trade reached its peak, bringing thousands of Africans to the US as slaves to be bought and sold on the open market, against their will.

It was seen as necessary to break the spirits of these stolen people, as you would break a horse, or a mule. Out of this arose a system of control, of continuous oppression of black slaves, that required the slave submit to the master’s will in all things. This system of oppression was enforced by law, justified in religion, and gradually became a system of caste based on skin color, in which the black-skinned people were considered to be born into their inferior state, and could never rise above it. The lighter-skinned people — the “white” people — were likewise born into a superior state, from which they could never fall. This was ordained by God.

By the time “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” was first penned by liberal-minded Deists, the colonies had three centuries of immersion in a skin-color-based caste system in which the lowest white person was judged as superior to the highest black person: the very opposite of equals in any sense.

Within eighty years of adopting the Constitution, the tension between the high ideals of constitutional government, and the systematic oppression of the much older racial caste system, broke out in open war over the issue of slavery itself, to which at least half the country’s (white) population consigned black people on the basis that they were of the lowest caste and thus fit for nothing else.

Black people were considered the mudsills of prosperity, according to writers of the time. A mudsill is the first footing laid down on the ground, in the mud, as the foundation of a house. It is the lowest thing in the grandest of houses, and everything above is built on its back. It cannot rise without destroying the house. It must endure, suffering the gnawing of rats and the incursion of damp rot, bearing the perpetual burden of stone and finer timber and grand ballroom dances with many feet.

As slaves, black people were the economic foundation of the US: the manual laborers who did all of the hard labor, which the owners claimed and used to build prosperity for themselves. The disparity was unconscionable, but conscience was soothed by the idea that black people were simply not capable of rising above the level of mudsill, being born to that state by their own nature and the Will of God.

After the Confederacy lost the war and slavery became illegal, the caste system went underground. Black people could no longer be owned and whipped by their owners, but they could be oppressed in other ways. Loans were denied. Businesses were burned. The KKK formed, and lynchings became commonplace public events at which celebratory photographs were taken and mailed to relatives as holiday greetings. Lynching photos were so popular that the greeting-card industry even opened up a card category for a while: Birthdays, Anniversaries, Lynchings, Easter.

We call this the “Jim Crow” period, from 1865 until the early 1960’s, in which a constant reign of terror was sustained, particularly in the deep South, to “keep the Negro in his place.”

So brutal and effective was this Jim Crow period, that when the German Nazis in the 1930’s were trying to codify their laws to eliminate the Jewish “race” from Germany (and ultimately, from existence), they turned with great admiration to the oppression of blacks in the United States. They wanted a caste system like the one in America, but with Jews placed in the lowest class.

Politically, the Democratic Party was the Party of the South (and Jim Crow) up until the early twentieth century. The Republican Party and its Laissez Faire economics (let the thieves take anything they can carry) ended up with the blame for the Great Depression, and the Democratic Party became a populist party that — in some desperation — supported common laborers and public works projects above the bankers and industrialists who, if they had not already thrown themselves off a ledge, were not able to pull the US out of the global recession. For the first time black workers in the north began to vote for Democrats. The South clung to the Democrats out of a sense of tradition, but with increasing unease. In the 1960’s, when the Democratic Party supported the Civil Rights Act, the South abandoned the Democratic Party, and the Party let them go. The Republican Party picked them up, and the era of “dog whistle politics” began.

“Dog whistle politics” in the US is where campaigns are run with cues and clues that are audible to people well-attuned to the race-based caste system. Those who are not attuned, simply don’t hear the clues at all. Because of the Civil Rights Act and the widespread disdain for “racism,” laws that explicitly targeted people in the black caste as during Jim Crow could no longer be passed or openly enforced. But politicians could still draw the white caste members’ votes with a wink and a nod that said, “I share your pain, brother. It ain’t right. It just ain’t right. And I’ve got your back, unlike my turncoat, traitorous Democrat opponent.” And they could (and did) work in government to block or poison any national law or program that truly threatened the caste system.

This brings us to President Obama, and if you’ve followed me this far, I think you see what is coming. A black man moved into the White House in January of 2009. A black man, destined by the Law of God to be lower than the lowest white man, was elevated to a position higher than the highest white man.

Under the American system of racial caste, this was an abomination. It was a Sign of the End Times. It was intolerable.

Supporters of the American caste system, bluntly put, lost their shit.

So when Donald Trump came on stage in 2015, blowing a full brass band of racist dog whistles, however badly, he was nothing short of a savior to those who wanted to keep the caste system in place.

Who are those people who supported (and support) Trump? The statistics are clear: the core of his supporters are working-class whites.

The question the media has been distracting us with since 2016 is, why are the working-class whites stupidly voting for Trump? Trump has done damn little for them, and a whole lot against them. His incompetence has made their lives a lot more insecure. They are clearly voting against their own interests. Are they really that stupid?

The answer comes from asking the question, “What if they aren’t stupid at all?” Or more specifically, “What if they aren’t voting against their interests?

Is there a way they could actually be voting against their short-term interests, but in favor of their longer-term interests?

The answer is: Yes.

The American caste system asserts that the lowest white man is higher than the highest black man, by birth, by nature, and by God. Another way of saying that is, so long as there is a black man available to press into service as a slave, then no white man can be pressed into slavery. If a white man is pressed into poverty, it will never be as deep or hopeless or lacking in dignity as the best condition of the black man. Even if a white man loses everything else, he still has his self-respect. Which means he is still honored as a white man, above the highest black man. He will never be at the bottom.

So long as caste endures, the white man will never be the mudsill, with his face in the mud and the whole economy forcing him to work for no return, with a smile on his face.

Now, remove the caste system.

As far-more-capable black people are allowed to come boiling up out of the caste-based Hell we’ve created for them, they will displace white people, and nothing will prevent those displaced white people from sinking all the way to the bottom.

The white people nearest the bottom of the white hierarchy stand to lose everything if the caste system goes away. So it is actually in their best longer-term interest to vote for an incompetent, loudmouth racist who offers at least the hope of preserving the caste system. Even if he steals a little from them.

I’m hoping that as I finish the book, the author will provide some insights into how we might untangle this mess. Because in the true long-term, this system hurts everyone.


Addendum:

It got late and I didn’t quite finish this.

There’s a lot of divide-and-conquer going on right now as the Biden administration gears up for Dec. 9 (Electoral College vote), early January (the Georgia runoffs for the Senate), and of course, January 20 (Trump is evicted), and one of the fights shaping up is “social issues (racism/sexism), or the economy?” Choose one.

I think they are two faces of the same problem.

The real problem with our economic system is that it is extraordinarily cruel. It is also unstable, and in the long-term — which is rapidly shortening — inviable, both of which suggest it will become even more cruel.

In my conversations with conservatives, it always seems to come down to the word “undeserving.” There is a belief that there exists a living-wage job for everyone, and anyone who is suffering financially is simply lazy, and therefore undeserving, and therefore should not be rewarded with “free handouts.” This almost always ends in a flash of anger and a statement along the lines of, “I worked my ass off for everything I have, why should some lazy bum get a free ride?”

The idea of the “lazy bum” is a variant of the “lazy slave.” Both are undeserving of kindness or pity, and therefore, should be punished to get them moving, rather than coddled and allowed to lie in the sun. If necessary, they should be whipped, starved, or allowed to die. This relies on the idea of a “mudsill economy,” with a ranking from the mudsill class, to the lordship class, where the latter is deserving of all the profits of everything built upon the mudsill, which deserves nothing beyond bare maintenance.

Any attempt to address economic inequity results in screams of “Socialism” and “Theft of Private Property,” and raises the mythology of the “undeserving” poor: the lazy welfare queen, the lazy bum, the lazy slave, the lazy Millennial, all of which is based on the idea of a hierarchy of deserving. And our example for the bottom of that hierarchy is the untouchable caste, the black slave. Our economics are cruel because the hierarchy of deserving is rooted in a rightful starvation in a gutter while billionaires stride past on the sidewalk, an ethic with its root in the unmourned death of a disobedient black slave.

We aren’t going to shift the economy in any meaningful way until we recognize that it is profoundly cruel. And we cannot see the cruelty so long as we have an untouchable caste.

1Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson

“Socialism”

People are once again yammering about “socialism,” and the talking heads have taken it up as a pointed stick to try to poke politicians with. I thought it might be worth clarifying a few things.

Let’s talk about three things.

  • The Rules
  • The Power
  • The Money

The Rules

There are two extremes of rules. At one end is totalitarianism, and at the other is liberalism.

Totalitarianism can be pithily described as “Whatever is not mandatory, is forbidden.” Under totalitarian rule, every human act is implicitly either compulsory or disallowed. We think of totalitarian rule as being something like the former Soviet Union, or Communist China. But the communal religious life in some of the Catholic Orders is even more totalitarian, specifying exactly when the monks rise and when they sleep, what they eat and drink, what they wear, how they may and may not pray during a given religious season, whether they can speak and under what conditions, every aspect of their sexual activity, and in some cases, even tight governance of their stray private thoughts (though this is admittedly hard to enforce).

Liberalism (in the extreme) can be pithily described as “Whatever.” It is the ultimate in personal choice in all things from Coke or Pepsi, to whether to kill your neighbor and eat him. When people talk about their “right to personal choice,” they are espousing liberalism.

The Power

There are two extremes of power, meaning (in this context) power-to-coerce. At one end is autocracy. At the other is anarchy.

In an autocracy, there is one leader who rules, who cannot be coerced by anyone; in turn, he can coerce anyone. We commonly call this an absolute dictatorship.

A representative democracy periodically elects a cadre of representatives who codify coercive laws.

A popular democracy would allow citizens to codify coercive laws by direct referendum.

In anarchy, no one can coerce anyone.

The Money

“Money” implies a certain kind of economy, known as a “monetary exchange economy.” There are other kinds of economy, such as (for example) a “gift” economy, in which there is no money; instead, there are less quantifiable but equally binding exchanges of trust and obligation — one can think of the exchange of “favors” with a Mafia Don.

In a monetary exchange economy, there are two extremes. At one end is Capitalism. At the other is Socialism.

Capitalism is marked by the private accumulation of money, which is a proxy for “capital,” meaning something of exchange value. It can be pithily described as “The rich get richer.”

Socialism is marked by redistribution of money, and can be pithily described as “From each according to ability, to each according to need.”

Putting Them Together

You can’t talk about the “form of government” a nation has without talking about (at least) all three of these, and there is nothing that prevents us from mixing them in any combinations we like. We can have a totalitarian anarchic capitalism*. We can have a liberal autocratic socialism**. These three independent axes form a three-dimensional cube, and a particular society can be anywhere inside that cube.

When someone declares “Socialism is bad, Capitalism is good,” it betrays a serious (and probably unteachable) ignorance.

Socialism is the natural way of managing wealth in a healthy family. The adults work to procure food, and the infants and small children get fed for filling diapers: from each, according to ability (adults), to each according to need (small children). Parents understand this more-or-less instinctively. In an efficient Capitalist family system, the infants would have to find some way of contributing to the quarterly wealth-growth of the family (e.g. Golden Poo), or they will be fired (abandoned) or processed for raw material value (eaten). In an enlightened Capitalist family system, the unproductiveness of infants would be written off as “speculative investment,” with an expected payout in the future. If the progress toward productiveness falls substantially behind the expectation, the investment will need to be recaptured (the now-much-larger child will be eaten).

Do I really need to point out that a family run on the Capitalist system would not only be abominable, but would quickly lead to the extinction of the human race?

Socialism is also the natural way that small groups function. Margaret Mead was once asked what she saw as the earliest sign of civilization, and she said it was evidence of a healed broken leg bone. Someone carried that person to safety, set the bone, and cared for him until the bone was strong enough to stand on. Or think of a group of friends, where one of them can’t pay for their dinner out because they forgot their wallet. Someone in the group will pay for their dinner. In an efficient Capitalist group of friends, the wallet-less loser would go hungry. In an enlightened Capitalist group of friends, the wallet-less loser would eat, but would pay interest on the short-term loan.

We certainly have examples of Socialist systems that were horrific to live under, such as Lenin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, and now, Maduro’s Venezuela. But these were all totalitarian, or autocratic, or both. We can look to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, or The Netherlands for Socialist systems that are much better to live under, and what distinguishes them from the failed Socialist states is that they are all liberal democracies.

So the problem has little or nothing to do with “Socialism.”

In the larger view, no large grouping of people with any location within The Cube does well for long. I’ve read that the ancient Pharoaic Egyptian empire did the best, roughly 3000 years. The Eastern Roman Empire got about 1500 years. Western Rome got 500 years as a republic, then transitioned to a pretty awful imperial model and got another 500. The Awful Soviet Union lasted a mere 70 years. Hitler’s Awful Third Reich lasted 12 years.

The United States has been a fascinating experiment in a society split by a racial caste system, each caste located in an entirely different location in The Cube. But it’s now showing all the symptoms of an incipient heart-attack, so I don’t think we’ve quite nailed the sweet spot just yet.

It’s a lot more complicated than, “Socialism is bad, Capitalism is good.”


*A “totalitarian anarchy” would be a society bound by extreme standards of black-and-white honor, where anyone who shamed himself (or his family) by doing something disallowed, or failing to do something compulsory, could be expected to enact sentence on himself: there would be no need for coercion.

**A “liberal autocracy” would be a society in which, when Fearless Leader speaks, you must comply. But if Fearless Leader didn’t say, you’re free to do whatever you want.

Trump Is The Antichrist

I was having a conversation today with a good friend of mine, a Methodist minister, and she was telling me about a parishioner who wanted to discuss the Book of Revelations with her, meaning (as she discovered) he wanted to tell her about how all of the prophecies in the Bible are coming true, right here, right now, and that the Antichrist has arisen, and Jesus will return any time now.

I commented to my friend that I do agree with her parishioner, that Donald Trump is the Antichrist, which caused an awkward moment of silence. Then I explained why, and she laughed in a simultaneously relieved and aggrieved way, and the awkward moment passed.

I was speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But I was also quite serious.

Donald Trump is the Antichrist.

So to talk about this, I need to talk about Premillennial Dispensationalism. And to talk about that, I have to give some background in Christianity: a subject about which, I’m sad to say, most modern American Christians know very little, and modern American non-Christians know even less.

Christianity as a religion began in the fourth century of the Common Era, under the Roman Emperor Constantine. The precursor to Christianity-the-religion was a Jewish sect that dates back to at least the first century CE, which was scattered in the year CE 70 along with much of the population of Jerusalem, when General Titus Flavius Vespasianus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem, enslaved its people, and dispersed them across the Roman Empire. The original Jewish sect that preceded Christianity-the-religion concerned the ministry of a certain Iasus (or Yeshua, or Joshua), said to be known to the Romans as The Nazarine (or possibly, Nazorite, which would be quite different.) The sect’s beliefs and teaching spread mostly through the slave classes of the Roman Empire, and like anything spread by word-of-mouth, it changed dramatically as it travelled. There were cults that said Iasus was Osiris. Others said he was Dionysus. Some said that John the Baptist was the True Messiah, and Iasus was a fraud (the Ionists). The Gnostics had their own strange quasi-Zorastrian take on the matter.

The Bible was created in the fourth century under the Church Councils convened by Emperor Constantine to “unify the Christian faith.” The councils initially did so by winnowing through the dozens of different Gospel accounts, hundreds of other Christian documents, thousands of specifically Jewish documents, and arguing a lot. They eventually formed the Nicene Creed and the official sacred document of the Christian faith, The Book, or (in Greek) Βιβλίο or Bible. Any Christian document that ended up on the cutting-room floor (to use a modern film metaphor) was declared heretical, and by the end of the fourth century, nearly all copies of these heretical documents had been destroyed or hidden. Every now and again, one of the hidden copies shows up, such as at the Nag Hammadi find, or the Qumran find, and causes huge controversy: documents such as the Gospel of Thomas, or the Gospel of Mary, for instance.

One of the documents included in The Book was a strange one called the Apocalypsis of John, ἀποκάλυψις (in Greek) meaning “revelation.” Modern Christians often refer to it as the Apocalypse (English spelling) of John, or the Book of the Revelation of John, or just “Revelations.”

There have been a lot of theories about John’s Apocalypse. It reads like the ravings of someone on one hellacious drug trip, and some have taken it as just that. Some have considered it to be an exoteric text used to initiate new Christians in the second and third centuries into an esoteric form of Christianity in which all of the various symbols in the Apocalypse are systematically explained — an esoteric tradition passed only from the initiated to the neophyte by word-of-mouth and sacred rite, long lost. Some have taken it as a coded political rant against any number of different Roman Emperors, and since no one actually knows when it was written, or by whom, there are a lot of horrific emperors to choose from. For all we know, it might have been General Titus himself, who became Emperor nine years after razing Jerusalem, who would certainly have been a target of ire for early followers of Iasus.

But since the Apocalypse talks quite a bit toward the end about the triumphant return of Iasus from the Heavens, and the founding of the New Jerusalem — an event which quite clearly has not yet happened, at least not in any simplistic, literal sense — most Christians through history have taken the Apocalypse to be a foretelling of things yet to come.

Virtually every century of the last seventeen in Christendom has had numerous outbursts of “Apocalyptic Fervor” built around the signs and symbols of the Apocalypse of John.

This brings us to John Nelson Darby, a Protestant theologian born in 1800 in England. It was Darby who is considered the father of Dispensationalism, a novel interpretive framework for the Bible that I won’t go into for want of time and patience. Applied to John’s Apocalypse, it gave birth to something called Premillennial Dispensationalism, which most people will recognize in its modern form as The End Days, consisting of Rapture, Tribulation, and Return of Christ.

There is something a bit perverse about trying to jam the poetic, prophetic, non-linear, Blakean images of the Apocalypse into a linear timeline narrative, as Premillenial Dispensationalism attempts, or much worse, a fictional series like the 1990’s Left Behind novels, which Evangelical author Fred Clark has critiqued so fiercely in his amusing The Antichrist Handbook.

But such timeline narratives are perennial. I was personally caught up in the 1970’s version of Left Behind, a book by author Hal Lindsay called The Late, Great Planet Earth. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, though the shame is softened by the fact that a lot of people got caught up in that Fervor.

A key player in this Premillenial Dispensationalist interpretation is the ominous figure of The Antichrist, as popularized in my lifetime by Ira Levin’s 1967 novel, Rosemary’s Baby, or the 1975 film, The Omen, or most recently (in a much lighter vein) by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens.

The Rise of the Antichrist is one of the (many) signs that vigilant Christians are supposed to watch for, because it signals a time of great trouble, followed by the return of Iasus.

There is a peculiar double-reversal of causality that happens when you mix Apocalyptic Fervor with a linearized account. The prophecy, if you take it as such, simply states that the sign of the Antichrist appears, followed by great troubles, and then sometime later, Iasus returns.

According to the Law of Prophetic Infallibility, the sequence gets turned around: it says that Iasus cannot come until the sign appears. Otherwise, the prophecy would have been wrong, and that is impossible.

This then gets flipped around again according to the Law of Prophetic Causality: Iasus must come after the sign appears, else the prophecy is wrong, which is imposssible. If the sign appears, Iasus must return.

And this morphs rather smoothly into something truly perverse: if we can bring about the sign, we can force Iasus to return.

Ever since I figured out that Jesus was not going to return in time to make my freshman English term paper assignment vanish in a blaze of glory, I’ve realized that if an Antichrist were ever to arise in modern America, it would be because fervent Christians in the grip of Apocalyptic Fervor brought him to power.

They don’t do this because they want the Antichrist. They just want to get the waiting over with. They want to hurry Iasus along.

So as my Methodist friend was describing her experience to me, and as I’ve myself seen in others, and experienced during that period of youthful shame, there is a kind of manic joy in any fervent Christian who thinks the Antichrist is already in play on God’s chessboard. “Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot!” The waiting is at long last over. We’re ready for this. Game on.

And so, the fervent Christians of this country have raised up an Antichrist.

It explains perfectly how the whole core of Evangelical Christianity has fallen head-over-heels in quite literal worship of this man who is so perfectly the opposite of Iasus in every possible way. A man who is so visibly and completely anti-Christ.

Here’s the rub, of course. Donald Trump is indeed the spitting image of the Antichrist his worshippers have envisioned, and they have lifted him up to power to force the Tribulation to play out, and force Iasus to return.

But it won’t work. My English paper didn’t disappear in a blaze of glory, and neither will the catastrophic mess this stage-actor Antichrist leaves behind.

All Lives Matter

I’ve started reading “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” by Isabel Wilkerson. It’s an extraordinarily painful book to read, painful for the deep truths she speaks which are not easy to hear.

I’m a vocal supporter of Black Lives Matter, and like most supporters, I see the title of my post — “All Lives Matter” — as primarily propaganda to try to de-legitimatize the horrific experience of black people in the United States. But Wilkerson’s book brings out a surprising nubbin of truth in this statement that I feel none of us can afford to miss in this fight for justice.

Wilkerson talks about the caste system in the US. It was developed, incrementally, in the early 1600’s, when the black slave trade was first finding a major market in the new colonies in North America. It is still very much with us. It is caste based on skin color.

Blacks are the “untouchables” in this caste system. They are the lowest of all. Here is the quote that caught my attention:

It was in 1913 that a prominent southern educator, Thomas Pearce Bailey, took it upon himself to assemble what he called the racial creed of the South. It amounted to the central tenets of the caste system. One of the tenets was “Let the lowest white man count for more than the highest negro.”

— Wilkerson, pg. 25 kindle edition

The result has been what may be one of the longest-running systemic human atrocities in the history of the human race. Begun in the 1600’s, and still running today, it spans nearly 400 years.

Lest anyone think the word “atrocity” is used loosely, it’s also worth noting that the early Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930’s, looking for a model for the extermination of the Jewish people, turned first and with great admiration to the United States, particularly in the US legal models of intermarriage and immigration regarding blacks.

The treatment of blacks in the US has been, since the 1600’s, an ongoing atrocity, a deep crime against humanity. The American system of caste is a global atrocity, a crime against humanity.

Which raises the question of why there are so many racists in the US. Are white people in the US just that depraved?

There are days when I think the answer is, yes. But that hasn’t hardened quite yet into a dedicated misanthropy.

Here’s the thing I’ve realized: the United States has never actually treated anyone very well, apart from the very top creme-de-la-creme, the half-million or so individuals — a relatively constant number since 1776 — at the very top rung of the caste system.

Most of us older people today lived through the one notable exception to that rule, the Golden Years from, say, 1945 to 1980. If you go back to before 1930, or after 2000, you find a society where everyone was pretty much on their own, expected to “pull their own weight” as well as the weight of the healthy profit margins of whoever they worked for. If ill health struck, or you were injured, or your employer decided arbitrarily to end your employment, you were then (and are now) pretty much out on the street.

Homeless? “Get a job.” Don’t expect a handout, or a hand up, or anything but the back of the hand. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, or just fucking roll over and die, already.

We are all treated as expendable, our general worthlessness mitigated by — and only by — our measure of contribution to making the top rung of the caste wealthier, by making the rung above us wealthier.

Which comes to the point.

We are, all of us white people, on various rungs of the caste system, just like the black people. Apart from those thirty-five years after the end of WWII, if we fall off our rung, if we cannot somehow catch ourselves as we fall, we fall all the way to the bottom.

Well…. Not quite the bottom. There is always the black man below us. We may have a cop chasing us from the steam tunnel vent where we try to keep warm through the night, but at least he isn’t kneeling on our throats, like he does with the black man.

The United States has been called many things, but I’m starting to see how it is also a sociopathocracy, based upon a four-century-old caste system that basically states, No Lives Matter.

So there is a certain dark comfort in knowing, as a white person, that there are certain rights and privileges that cannot be taken from me because of my skin color. Because I cannot fall lower than the negro. It’s part of the creed of the South, which has bled into the North, and the West, and become the creed of much of the US.

I think this is the deeper logic of racism. No lives matter, in the US. But (to misquote George Orwell) some lives matter less than others.

I don’t think it’s sufficient to merely offer solidarity with black people in their pursuit of justice. We have to do something about this entire caste system. We need to recognize our naked sociopathocracy as a nation — our roots in something the Nazi genocides were admiringly patterned upon — and move toward a society in which lives matter. Drop the “Black” and the “Blue” and the “All” — Lives Matter.

Because in the US, they just don’t.

The Old Normal

Decisions about opening schools in the Fall will be made all around the country this next week. I don’t want to denigrate the people making those decisions in any way, because they are facing a lot of very loud, conflicting demands, and will manage to offend nearly everyone in the end, regardless of what they decide. They have all my sympathy.

But I think the school reopening this Fall will be a national catastrophe.

Here’s hoping I’m completely wrong: we’ll know, soon enough.

Everyone wants to get back to the Old Normal. The poor need to have the schools feed their kids, so they can go back to work trying to make rent. The middle-class — what is left of it — want their kids to jump through all the right hoops to get into college. The rich — well, I have no idea what the rich are thinking, other than that they want more, and that getting more for them is good for everyone.

I don’t really see the future, but I’m pretty sure the “Old Normal” is gone for good. There’s a pun there: it is gone, for Good. Because the Old Normal was not good, and growing increasingly fragrant. Time will tell if we replace it with something better, or tumble into the abyss.

My parents both got sick at the same time during the influenza pandemic of 1968/1969, the so-called “Hong-Kong Flu.” Both were very, very ill. It left one side of my mother’s face paralyzed in the end. I don’t recall if my sister and I caught it, but as kids, we bounced back quickly. But watching my parents get that sick — especially my father, who never got sick — was terrifying.

My sister and I might very well have brought the disease home from school.

Hong-Kong flu broke in the spring of 1968 in Hong Kong, and was spreading in the US by September. The first vaccines were already available in August, a month before the flu hit US shores, and a more effective vaccine was released in November. As influenza viruses go, the H3N2 virus responsible was relatively benign: R0 was not as high as, say, measles, mortality rates were low, and long-term complications after recovery were uncommon. While you could get very sick, as my parents did, when you recovered, you recovered. Even better, catching the flu causes the human immune system to produce antibodies specifically designed to destroy that flu virus, and this immunity lasts for years, if not an entire lifetime — to catch influenza again, the virus has to mutate (which it does), but that often comes with a cost to the virus.

COVID-19 is much, much, much worse. R0 is higher, meaning it spreads faster, and mortality is much higher. Complications after recovery are often severe, including heart, lung, liver, kidney, and brain damage. There is early evidence that immunity after catching the virus is not retained: like a common cold, you can catch COVID-19 again and again, which will limit the effectiveness of vaccines and makes COVID a “forever” threat. It is possible that an effective treatment will be found: a shot that knocks out the virus, for instance, before it has a chance to ruin your heart or lungs.

COVID-19 is a different beast from influenza, and it’s going to have a deeper effect on our society.

For one thing, it’s going to break at least a few of the grubby fingers off our Capitalist pharmaceutical model. Our current model requires that you be relatively wealthy to be (medically) healthy.

We’ve eradicated most infectious killers, like plague and smallpox, and the remaining contagious killers are generally “lifestyle-related,” such as syphilis; the rest of the contagions are relatively minor, like a common cold, or the seasonal flu. Most of the remaining diseases are things we “develop” rather than “catch,” like heart-disease, or cancer, and we also tend to label these as “lifestyle-related.”

Though it’s cruel and barbaric, we’ve come to a place as a society where we feel we can justifiably blame the ill for their illnesses. That allows us to justify extorting them for any cure we might have in our magic black bag. If they can’t pay up, we deny them care. After all, it was their own damn fault for getting sick in the first place.

With an airborne infectious killer, the blame for my illness falls on the person who gave it to me, who could have been anyone on the street, from a homeless beggar to a well-groomed banker.

Or my own child, returning home from school.

So here’s how I think it will play out.

They’ll open the schools, under the insistence that “kids don’t give kids COVID.” Then a bunch of teachers will test positive, and all the kids will be sent home for two weeks. Toward the end of that two weeks, some of the kids’ families will be hit by COVID. Some of those people will end up in the hospital, some may suffer crippling complications, and some may die. There will be lawsuits, naming the teachers, the school district, and anyone else involved.

They’ll close the schools.

Then the “treatment” will come out — the anti-COVID pill, or shot, or maybe even a vaccine that covers you for three months, or a year.

They’ll open the schools again. A bunch of teachers will test positive, and they’ll give them all the shot, and give all the kids the shot and send everyone home for two weeks, just to make sure.

Oh, wait: not all the kids will get the shot. Look at the number of dimwits out there who won’t wear a mask. The anti-vaxxers will come out in force. There will be religious exemptions — my mother would have claimed one of those. Someone will die, somewhere, maybe because of someone who refused to take the shot. More lawsuits, now naming and blaming everyone in sight.

They’ll close the schools again.

Assuming something like our society survives, it’s pretty clear to me that we will need, in the end, to move to some kind of system in which a) taxes pay for public health (i.e. Medicare for All), and b) refusal to participate in public health mandates will carry stiff legal penalties.

And how the Libertarians and anti-maskers will scream at that violation of their Freedoms….

As with all such things, the end result (after much flying spittle) will be some kind of a compromise: I can see a split between “public health” and “privilege care,” and specific public health exemptions for insular groups. There are a lot of people who don’t like the public schools, and can’t afford private schools, so they home-school. So long as they stay within an insular group, they can manage their own collective health care under Libertarian principles. It could work.

But this won’t be happening in a vacuum. Other things will be going on. I’ll touch on those in subsequent posts.

My First Dragonfest

The Dragonfest pan-Pagan gathering got its start back in the 1970’s with a smallish group (as I’ve heard tell) of about 25 people, who decided to go up into the mountains and do a communal “Pagan” sort of thing.

I’ve only heard stories of that time. My first encounter with the festival was in 1996, two decades later. By then, it was a “going concern” with admission tickets, liability waivers, a full board of directors, and a very thick three-ring binder containing tips on “What to do when….” Dragonfest is a going concern in 2020, though it will be interesting to see how they handle the post-COVID-19 world.

The organizers have asked for stories from the olden days, and looking back through my blog, I see that I’ve never fully commented on my first experience.

Perhaps it’s time to share.

Every story lives in a context. To understand the context of this story,  which is intensely personal, I think the relevant personal points are just a few: I was raised in what I would call a large urban center in Wyoming, which qualifies as a small town anywhere else, in a household dominated by a particularly unhealthy form of Protestant Fundamentalism uprooted from rural Oklahoma. I went to Long Island and got an advanced degree in physics. I never felt at home on the East Coast, and returned to Colorado to raise a family. In 1995, the marriage ended, and in 1996 I found myself catapulted into a slightly-early mid-life rediscovery of myself. A work acquaintance recommended Dragonfest, and in the spirit of why-ever-not?, I decided to go.

I was both excited and apprehensive. I knew this was a “Pagan” gathering, and I did a little bit of reading beforehand, in much the same way you’d learn a little German if you were planning to travel in Germany. Danke schön, Blessed Be. Don’t lead with Hitler or the Burning Times. And just in case, keep your passport handy and your car keys on you, in case you fuck up majorly and need to beat a quick retreat.

Bring condoms. Just in case.

I think that captures the personal context well-enough.


August, 1996. Wednesday.

Dragonfest is held at the Wellington Lake campground, under the shadow of the Dragon. From the flat beyond The Point, just below the entrance to the Old Boy Scout Camp, you can look up at the mountain and unfocus your eyes, and the Dragon pops right out at you: usually sleeping, though if the light is just right, s/he looks like s/he’s maybe thinking about a getting up for a snack. The idea of anything that large looking for a snack is a bit discomfiting.

The drive takes me down I-25 into Denver, then the cutoff to I-70 and E-470 all the way around to US 285 running toward Conifer and Bailey: the point being it’s a less-than-idyllic drive through big-city traffic, in early August, which is invariably hot, dusty, terrifying, and did I mention hot? My car is a Toyota Tercel without air conditioning, a tiny car with a tiny engine that cannot maintain highway speed on the uphill leg of a mountain road, much less power an air conditioning unit, and I have not yet learned the trick of having a liter bottle of water handy to sweat out on the trip. I drive through the smoggy,  frantic Hell of the Denver freeways, and then, bit-by-bit, find myself climbing into a quieter, cooler, more breathable Wild. After the turn-off in Bailey, I get a mile or so of pavement, and then it’s gravel, and then dirt, surrounded by dense green forest. I cannot drive fast on the wandering, washboarded road, so I slow down. There are signs pointing the way: a bunch of balloons tied to a fencepost at a turning; a sign taped to a rock. I roll down the window, and the air is cool and scented with pine, aspen, and sage. I start to relax.

The lake appears suddenly as a glint of sun on the water, seen through the trees, and then I am there.

Attendance is far short of the peak it will reach, sometime in the early 2000’s. Even though they have not yet opened campsites on the upper fire road — this week, we are all crowded down onto the edge of the lake — the area seems almost deserted.

There is a sense of timelessness. Only one person is at the “greeting” tent, and she’s deep into her book, a floppy sun-hat on her head. She looks up, smiles broadly, and waves her hand at the table. There are some things to be done, like sign up for a two-hour workshift sometime during the weekend, pick up a schedule, collect some free bling. There is little urgency to it. The quiet, following after hours of the roar and rumble of tires on highway and gravel, is a benediction.

Because I am here for the full-tour experience, I decide to camp in Bare Country, which is the clothing-optional area on the flats below the Boy Scout Camp, directly under the amused gaze of the Dragon. I know I am in the right place when I drive past a fellow wearing hiking boots, a mountain-man beard, and nothing else, pounding in tent stakes. I find a place to park and get my tent set up just as the afternoon rain comes, a gentle but bitterly frigid sprinkle. I see other people who have arrived after me, struggling with their tents in the rain, and I spend the rest of the afternoon helping them get set up.


Drums in the darkness.

I will one day in the future read an interesting article about culture and sleep. It turns out that our modern ideal of sleeping in a dark box inside a bigger box for eight solid hours, is neither common in human history, nor particularly beneficial for our bodies and minds. The band hunter-gatherers — the social organization of  homo sapiens for at least 95,000 years before we started writing down “history” — seem to have slept in shifts through the night, where there were always a few people awake, tending the fire, having sex, preparing food, getting high, telling stories — and, of course, drumming.

I know nothing of this in 1996. Indeed, I don’t have a drum, don’t know anything about drums, and have no idea drumming has anything to do with Pagan gatherings. But I do experience it. It touches something primal, something profoundly restful. It says that I am not alone, that there are others watching for the tiger, the wolf, the flood and the fire and the enemy lurking in the darkness. The regular, meditative beat of the night drummers says that all is well. Something deep in my brain relaxes. Something that may be truly relaxing for the first time in my life.


Thursday.

I decide to brave the lake.

The issue isn’t the water, though the lake is quite chilly.

The issue is that this is a clothing-optional swimming area. In mixed company.

I am here for the deluxe, full-tour experience. I am not going to chicken out over this. Yes, there are naked people everywhere, but I’ve seen naked. I was married for years. I’ve changed diapers. I’m fine with naked.

Just fine.

I’m still standing there, dressed, gnawing on my lip. I’m the odd one on the beach, wearing clothes.

I take a deep breath, and remove my clothing. It’s not much different from showering at the gym. Just take it off, fold it, walk down to the lake, and wade in. I make sure to keep my sandals on — when the lake isn’t crowded with Pagans, it’s crowded with fishermen, and fishermen leave hooks and broken beer bottles in the water.

Fuck! The water is freezing! Keep moving. There are other people swimming out here, they aren’t drowning, it isn’t going to kill me. Even if it feels like my heart will stop any second. AAaagh! My navel just got wet, and my diaphragm froze. Puff. Puff. Puff. Dive!

There is something about getting your head under the cold water that changes everything. Within seconds, the water is merely cool, almost tepid. I swim out, and back, dipping under the water again and again in pure delight. There are warm currents, and cooler currents. They all feel heavenly. I dive again, and there is no swimsuit that threatens to pull off and leave me embarrassed. There is no possibility of such embarrassment. I am naked. I swim as people swam for 95,000 years before getting trapped by modesty.

When I come back to the beach, I glance around, and realize that no one is paying any attention to me. We are all naked. I also see there are no supermodels on the beach, male or female. There are rolls of fat. Scars. Birthmarks. Wrinkles. A lot of nipples, mostly in pairs, all different, yet all alike, on both men and women. Pubic hair, of all colors. All colors, including …. fluorescent pink? Oh, my….

I relax on my towel on the warm sand, and I start to realize — viscerally — that clothing is about power, and modesty is about submission to that power. I wear the software engineer’s T-shirt and jeans — I have power over the people in coveralls. That fellow has a suit — he has power over me. That guy in the uniform with a badge has power over the guy in the suit. The guy in a slightly different uniform with stripes on his sleeve has power over the guy with the badge. And on it goes.

Strip us all naked and throw us in the water, and where is that power? It’s why they tell us to imagine the audience naked if we are nervous about public speaking: when we lose our clothing, we cease to proclaim our rank, and without rank, there is no power.

These are thoughts that will develop over the years, from this and many other experiences of public nakedness yet to come. But my first experience is right here, right now, under the sleepy gaze of the Dragon with sand on my feet and the sun on my face. There is something very right about sunning naked on the beach.


Friday evening.

I stand outside the Drawing Down circle.

I’ve inquired a bit about this rite, and read a little about the general practice. It’s an Oracle. Priestesses of the Goddess “draw down” or “channel” a higher power, and will respond to questions from people who ask them. It’s very popular: the waiting circle fills with people.

This is a “Goddess” rite, and I’ve somewhere gained the impression that this is primarily for the women at the gathering. On Saturday there will be a Sun Rite, where a Priest of the God will channel a higher power, and I’ve already decided I will go to that and not this one. I will simply observe from outside the circle. I do see that there are some men in the circle. But it is mostly women.

I do not want to offend by barging in where I’m not welcome. Danke schön.

Someone is beating a slow heart-rhythm on a mother-drum, a large drum with a deep tone that is almost subsonic. THUM. thum-THUM. THUM. thum-THUM.

As I stand, watching, I feel … what is it that I feel? A pull. An invitation. I take a deep breath, realizing I’ve become slightly entranced by the drum, by the wild beauty of the sun setting over the back haunches of the Dragon. I let myself fall back into the rhythm, and the pull is still there. “Come,” it says. I follow the pull into the waiting circle.

I don’t know what is proper. But I belong here. Tonight.

We are gathered before four high arches erected at one edge of the circle, each topped with a banner of a different color. One of a small army of guides will step forward to lead a single person standing at a gate through the arch and across a field to where the oracular priestesses hold audience. Then another. One by one.

I have been raised with a God who demands sacrifice and obedience: perhaps not literal sacrifice any more, in the form of goats and doves and firstborn children, but certainly obedience, and right-thinking, and modesty. “We are not worthy even to gather up the crumbs under your table, but it is your nature always to have mercy,” we recite from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Or, “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis — Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us,” from the Latin Mass. We are sinners. We are not worthy. We are not worthy. Have mercy on us.

What I had read of the Pagan paths was that we approach the gods as suitors seeking a lover. We approach as peers and collaborators. As companions. As equals, living in different realms. Rather than us asking them endlessly to stoop to lift us up from our perpetual inadequacy, they call upon us to rise. To speak with a Goddess, I must must not abase myself — instead, I must find the God within me.

I feel a bit terrified. What have I gotten myself into? Seeking the God within myself? What nonsense is this? What heresy is this? What if I get it wrong?

When the guide at last takes me across the field, it is nearly midnight, full-dark under a black sky scattered with pin-prick shining diamonds. I am led to a cleared area, where someone in a dark, hooded cloak stands, dimly lit by torches and a low fire. At first, I think this is the channel, but that somehow doesn’t feel right. Then I notice a lump on the ground:  a smaller figure seated — kneeling? — in front of the standing figure, who stands guard. I approach and kneel, not in supplication, but merely to meet on the same level. The channel is also hooded, face in shadow, looking at the ground. Then she looks up, directly at me.

Her eyes….

I don’t really know what I see. It’s like her eyes are backlit, but they aren’t. It’s something else, something deeper. It isn’t a human gaze: it is far too intense. It involves recognition. Welcome. Delight.

I know Her.

My heart is pounding.

It’s only a moment later that I notice the neatly-trimmed beard on her face. The channel is male.

It’s not important.

We speak, briefly. The words also mean very little.

All of the real communication has already taken place.


Saturday.

I skip the Sun Rite. In the same way I had felt pulled into the Drawing Down circle the night before, I feel pushed back from the Sun Rite.

Instead, I attend a Discordian Wiccan rite. Question: How many Discordians does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: One, standing in a bathtub full of brightly-colored East German power tools.

(Don’t try too hard: it isn’t supposed to make sense.)

We start by raising energy, stomping vigorously in a counter-clockwise direction while chanting: “We love bananas, because they have no bones! Hey!” We call the cross-quarters, rather than the quarters: instead of air, fire, water, and earth, we call dust, hot air, steam, and mud. The assistant High Priestess passes out red construction paper circles stamped in small letters proclaiming “Model GP-18 suitable for all ritual purposes,” and we “cast the circle” by throwing them in random directions. The High Priestess enters the circle and channels the spirits of Moose and Squirrel. With puppets. Ritual degrees are conferred upon all participants, very few lower than Bishop, drawn from an old hat. The high priestess moons the entire gathering and and then leaves the circle, walking backward.

The High Priestess, Amber K, holds a workshop after the ritual, and we discuss the essential role of humor, mockery, and anarchy in ritual, religion, and culture. It’s like the Fool in the Medieval Court, who is often the only one who can speak the truth, because, hey, he’s just the Fool. It would be undignified to be upset by anything the Fool says. Even the truth. In the same way, any ritual can become encrusted with self-importance, and it’s good to give it a bit of an irreverent thrashing when that happens.


Saturday night.

I wander the entire campsite as night falls, feeling very much at home here among these mad, wonderful people. Many of the campsites are individual covens or clans, and they are doing their own rites tonight, for themselves. It is the last night of Dragonfest.

A peculiar thing begins to happen. I begin to feel very alone.

I walk past one camp, on a low hill above me. They are toasting with a mead horn, and laughing and speaking, and there seems to be something wrong with my hearing, because the sound seems muted: the soft lapping of waves on the lake seems louder than the laughs above. There must be a lake breeze carrying the sound away. There is also campfire smoke, which perhaps accounts for the fact that they all seem dimmer than they should. Or maybe my glasses are dirty.

I would like to join some group — it’s getting quite chilly, and the sense of aloneness is growing a bit oppressive — but it feels more and more like I’m the only person actually in the entire campground, surrounded by a vast wilderness. Just me, and the bears. There are bears. I’m not wearing a hat, which is stupid: I’m shedding heat like a candle. Perhaps I should go back to my tent and get warm in my sleeping bag. Maybe just go to bed. It’s dark, and cold, and I’m all alone in the woods.

I come to a three-way junction in the road, and stop. I can’t decide which way to go. There’s a nearby campsite with a lovely campfire, but it seems completely unwelcoming. I don’t understand why.

And then, the light from the nearby campfire seems to brighten — perhaps someone threw wood on it — and it’s suddenly very welcoming. My indecision vanishes. I walk toward the fire.

As I approach along the path, I feel a sudden agitation, a kind of “butterflies in the stomach” feeling. I chalk it up to incipient hypothermia: I’m clearly about to start shivering. There is an older man, and two older women, puttering about with the fire. I greet them and ask if I can share their fire for a bit.

“Your timing is perfect,” Judith, the more outgoing woman says. “We just finished up our ritual, and opened our circle.”

“Oh,” I say. “So the circle is gone now?” I’m thinking about that sudden sense of openness.

“No….” she says. “We only opened it. It’s still there, and we’ll likely leave it up all night. The big drumming circle right over there is … well, they don’t do a very good job of warding their space in the first place, and the drummers get drunk and they walk in and out and punch holes in it all night long, and they have all kinds of chaotic energy spewing out all night. Sloppy, and it’s annoying. It gives me headaches. So we’ll leave ours up until it fades by itself.”

“Interesting,” I say. I don’t really understand a word of this. How do you open a circle but leave it up?

We make small talk while I soak up heat. Earl is a retired nuclear engineer from Rocky Flats, and we talk shop for a bit. I’ve been surprised by the number of engineers and scientists at the gathering.

Once I’m warmer, I ask if they would mind if I … well, played with their circle a bit. Seeing that it’s still up. They have no objection.

I’ve still got butterflies, though I’m reasonably warm now. I walk back along the path, and suddenly — instantly — the butterflies are gone. I step back toward the fire, and they return. So it isn’t incipient hypothermia.

“Right here?” I call out. They’re all watching me closely.

“That’s right where I cast it,” Judith says. I’m now playing all kinds of confirmation bias hypotheses through my head: they can see me, I can see them, we’re just playing off each other without realizing it.

I start moving around their campsite, in and out, in and out, and there seems to be an invisible line: when I’m inside, I’m quivery; when I’m outside, I’m not. I get to the far side of their tent, where we can’t see each other, and I call out, “Seems like you cut really close to the tent on this side.” More assent, called back across the tents. I follow the tent line back into view from the fire, and they are all watching me and grinning.

Then I stop.  No quivers. I move around, and I can’t pick up anything at all. I move back toward the tent, and the quivers are still there. I move forward, and it’s gone.

“I’ve lost it,” I say.

To my surprise, Earl and the other woman start laughing out loud, while Judith scowls. “All right, that’s enough, you guys. It’s not my fault. It was a nice, tight circle.”

“Yeah,” Earl says, “but you forgot to leave the firewood inside the circle.”

Judith seems really embarrassed, and irritated.

“Earl is right, I don’t know what I was thinking. I drew the boundary, and then cut right across there and left the darn firewood outside. We couldn’t have Earl walking back and forth tearing holes in it during our rite, and I didn’t want to start all over again, so I made a cut right where you’re standing, and patched on an addition. To cover the wood.”

Seriously?

I will think about this experience, and others like it, in the coming years. It isn’t that humans can sense things more subtle than flashing lights and loud sounds and television advertising — I will continue to have plenty of experiences with subtle “energies” of one sort or another, just as everyone does, though most pretend they saw nothing, heard nothing. The astonishing thing is not that we can sense these things. What is astonishing is that one human can draw a line in the air with their finger, imagining a curtain of fire rising from the ground, and another human can come along later and find the line, and where they scrubbed it out.

A blot of mustard. A bit of underdone potato. Bah, humbug.

Our philosophy leaves much to be desired.


Sunday.

The festival shuts down at noon. I don’t know where they do the working, but “the dome” comes down. I feel it happen. The entire campsite has been enclosed in something like what Judith had constructed, a bubble or a barrier of some sort, so big that I hadn’t noticed it until the moment it was gone. It’s like the sunlight changes color, imperceptibly. The world gets larger and more impersonal; time begins to flow inflexibly again, where one second is always and everywhere the same number of beats of an oscillating Cesium atom in Boulder.

I remember that sense of timeless ease the afternoon I first arrived.

I think of that moment in Lord of the Rings, when the Fellowship leaves Lothlórien and at the boundary of the land, some light seems to leave the sky, and the earth.

I don’t want to leave. But I have obligations, and — for the moment — the magic is hidden again.

The Bad Guy

There’s a whole class of literature that involves caricatures. Fables, fairy tales, morality plays, allegories, Westerns, superhero tales, the list goes on and on….

These are fine in their place: they simplify moral issues so that you can see what is going on. There’s generally a “good guy,” and a “bad guy,” and they duke it out and the good guy wins. Or sometimes, the good guy loses, but becomes a martyr (or a helpful spirit) that inspires and aids the next good guy in the sequel.

One of the things that always gritches me — yes, I’m verbing an adjective, deal with it — is the traditional shallowness of the bad guys. They want “absolute power” for instance: but why? If you look at Star Wars, the evil emperor wants absolute power over everything, so let’s just assume he wins and gets absolute power over everything. So now, he just sits on his throne, immortal, unchallenged, all-powerful? Does he let out an evil chuckle every now and again, just because that’s his greatest remaining joy in life, chuckling while he remembers the good old days when he had something interesting to do with his time?

Of course, any sensible person would point out that this is a sci-fi/fantasy movie, an upscale comic book plot, and I’m taking it far too seriously. I agree, of course.

But then we come to “conspiracy theories.”

A lot of people believe that these things are real. That they are an imminent threat. That we all have to “do something” to respond to the threat, though it seems that — in most cases — the only thing we need to do is “see through” their evil plot and say, “Aha, I see through your evil plot!”

There are two sniff tests I always apply to any tale of conspiracy pretending to be real.

The first is this: never ascribe to conspiracy what can be adequately explained by mass stupidity.

The second is: if there is a conspiracy, and a bunch of “bad guys” secretly pulling strings and getting mass stupidity to work for them, then there is an objective to their conspiracy, and the objective makes some kind of communicable sense — otherwise, the conspirators would not have fallen in together in the first place.

There had to be a point in time that they were having lunch at a very upscale bistro, and one of them said, “Say, you know if we decided to do this thing that we would have to keep secret, just among us, it would benefit us all….” And then the others thought about it and decided they were all in.

People don’t conspire to “do evil.” They conspire to do something else, and evil is a side-product. They’ll often even acknowledge this, calling it a “regrettable, but necessary evil.”

In short, the second sniff-test is, “Follow the money.” It isn’t always money — sometimes it’s pride, or vainglory, or ideology — but there’s always some guiding benefit.

So there’s a conspiracy theory trying to make the rounds right now about how this whole COVID-19 thing is a hoax/conspiracy. Two, actually. Trump thinks (or says he thinks, which doesn’t mean much) it’s part of a conspiracy by the Democrats to take him out of power. Others, on the web, have been saying it’s a government/media conspiracy to try to enslave common citizens.

Neither makes an ounce of sense.

If it’s a hoax to take Trump out of power, then it started in China, spread to Italy, and is now worldwide. While I could easily believe that most of the world would like to see him kicked out of the Oval Office, quarantining Northern Italy is a very strange way to go about it.

But this other one is equally strange.

Again, you have the global nature of this. You have to assume a global government/media conspiracy, which is a bit like the evil emperor of Star Wars — what is the point of a global government/media conspiracy that … asks everyone to stay home for a few weeks?

Yes, like a curfew, it’s a ham-handed way of maintaining control. But you have curfews to quell riots, uprisings, and crime waves. During a curfew, you expect — demand, even — that people go back to work during the day. There’s no benefit to the powerful to asking people to stay home instead of going to work.

Indeed, quite the opposite. Business suffers.

And then the stock market tanks. It has already wiped out all the claimed gains of the Trump presidency, and we’ll see where it goes next week. The Federal Reserve has just announced it will cut the prime interest rate to zero. Were I trading in the stock market, I’d have sell orders placed with my broker, for execution at opening bell on Monday. Because I don’t expect swift recovery. In fact, I’d not be surprised if it reaches a point where the markets are closed altogether, to prevent financial panic and meltdown. I’ll not be surprised if we see a financial panic and meltdown, anyway.

It will be worldwide. Because the hoax, if it were a hoax, is worldwide.

This benefits whom?

Certainly not a global media conglomerate, which makes most of its money from advertising bought by the companies that make their money in a global economy that has to be functioning in order for them to buy advertising. If the stock market tanks, the global media empire gets hit, too.

Certainly not government. Governments do not benefit from economic meltdowns. In fact, they often fall, and the people in power get booted out, sometimes assassinated, sometimes driven out of the country to seek asylum elsewhere.

No one is going to deliberately fake a global pandemic. That would only happen in a comic book.

The Last Billionaire

Eric puttered in the garden, idly chipping at the hard, dry earth with his hoe. Sweat ran down his back, soaking his shirt but offering no relief from the heat. The temperature was already 37, and it was still early in the day. It would be in the mid-40’s this afternoon.

“Come on, Papa,” he muttered to himself, glancing again at the steel door to the compound.

Almost as if in answer, the locks on the door disengaged with a loud, metallic clack, and the door swung inward to disgorge his father, dressed — as always — in the formal clothing of his station.

“We’ve got to go, Papa,” Eric said.

His father stepped out into the sun and heat, blinking rapidly. His back was straight, his head held high, but his jaw was tight.

Eric clenched his own jaw and suppressed a flood of anger.

The bastard probably yelled at Dad. Called him names. Maybe struck him, though I don’t see any marks or blood. Well, it doesn’t matter any more.

He let the hoe fall to the ground, and strode quickly to where the two stuffed backpacks lay half-concealed under a dying bush, one for each of them. He donned one — the heavier one — and carried the other back to his father, who stood, staring at the fallen hoe with a faint scowl on his face.

“You need to put your tools away, son,” his father said, his voice cultured and calm. Eric felt another wave of anger, mixed with shame. He hesitated, then bent and picked up the fallen hoe.

It’s not about the tools,” his father had told him once, when he was a hot-headed teen-ager and had thrown a garden tool to the ground in a rage. “Tools can be repaired or replaced. It’s about you, and how you approach the world around you. Are you going to care for the things in your charge, or are you going to neglect and abuse them?

“I’m sorry, Papa,” Eric said.

His father took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.

“I’m sorry, too, son. Leave the hoe. Walk with me.”

Eric blinked in surprise. But anxiety won out.

“Papa, we’ve got to go! They aren’t going to wait for us.”

“There’s time. Put down your pack, and walk with me to the lake. I want to sit by it for a moment.”

Eric’s clock was the sun. His father’s clock was inside-time, atomic-time, exact time. The same time as the people waiting for them. If his father said there was time, there was time.

Eric sighed, set down his father’s pack, and shrugged out of his own. His father had already started walking into the forest.

This was the fourth forest. The first — the original forest that had stood for centuries on this land — had burned and failed to grow back, because of drought and the growing heat. The second forest had been made of sterner stuff, manufactured to look like real trees, and the result had been … disturbing. They were close to real in appearance, but not quite — the branches did not bend properly in the wind, the leaves did not rustle the way they should, the bark was too regular, and they did not smell right. Though they were designed to give the illusion of life, in reality they emphasized the deadness of the forest. They had been torn down long before the project was completed.

They were replaced by the third forest, which was made up of gardens and sculpture, with climbing, heat-tolerant vines covering arbors and tall marble columns. The heat had eventually baked the heavily-irrigated gardens and withered the vines, leaving the sculpture standing desolate and alone on bare, sun-parched earth. The sculpture was removed and replaced with the fourth forest.

The artists had this time abandoned any attempt to replicate or incorporate nature. They had instead created an abstract fantasy forest of crystal, metal, and enamel. It tinkled rather than rustled in the breezes, and when the wind rose, it would stroke taut wires and openings in hollow branches, and the forest would actually sing. Lights built into the crystalline branches and leaves would flicker and create complex patterns at night. Faintly-perfumed water was pumped through the boles of the trees, and then misted into the air, cooling the shade beneath the branches.

At the center of the forest was a small lake of clear water. The beachfront was made of natural sand that dipped artful fingers into the water. Strategically-placed benches offered striking views of the lake and its surrounding crystal forest.

It had been both beautiful and pleasing, though it was sterile.

This forest had been completed five years ago, but like any man-made art exposed to the weather, it needed constant maintenance. There had been poor maintenance for the last three years, and none at all for the past year, and there were visible signs of decay. Sand had shifted, leaving bare spots that revealed metal and fabric. Enamel had faded where the sun was brightest, and chipped where wind-borne pebbles had struck. One of the trees on the far side of the lake had lost its exterior shell on one side, blown off in a windstorm, revealing rusted iron scaffolding inside. Wind-blown trash and detritus had caught in branches.

It was still beautiful.

They found a bench in the perfume-misted shade and sat. Eric waited in silence for his father to speak.

“Ramón,” Eric’s father said after a time, pensively. “My mother named me Ramón. She looked it up in a book. She said it meant ‘wise protector.’”

He fell silent.

Eric glanced at the sun’s angle, and fidgeted impatiently.

“I am staying,” Ramón said.

Eric stopped fidgeting, and stared at his father blankly.

“Papa! We have passage arranged!”

His father was silent.

“You can’t stay here! This place is dying. You will die with it!”

His father’s shoulders slumped, ever so slightly.

“Son, I am old, and spent. I will die before long, regardless of where I am. Here…. If I stay here, I may still do some good.”

“What good can you possibly do here?!” Eric cried out.

Ramón turned to fix Eric with a sharp gaze and faint smile that curled one side of his mouth.

“Good does not come of circumstances…” Ramón said.

“…it comes of choices,” Eric finished, with angry tears in his eyes. “As you’ve told me my entire life. But that is just as true whether you are here, or far from here. You can do good here, and you can do good there. Why stay? WHY?”

Ramón sighed, and turned his gaze back to the sterile lake.

“He will not notice the disappearance of another gardner. But if I leave, he will certainly notice. It will frighten him, and he will report my absence. They will hunt us both down.”

“Papa, half the staff is already gone. He has done nothing.”

Ramón smiled tightly, without mirth. “He does nothing, because he does not know.”

Eric blinked. “How… how can he not know?”

“Because I have not told him.”

Eric gaped.

“Papa, this whole place is like an abandoned house. Look at that tree over there — no one has fixed it. No one will. The last real gardens are nearly dead. Fountains have gone dry, and they still gurgle, because no one has bothered to shut off the power to the pumps. The apartments have far more dark windows at evening than lighted windows. How can he possibly not notice?”

Ramón closed his eyes and sighed, and slowly shook his head.

“He doesn’t notice, son, because he never leaves the compound, and has never noticed the staff. He does not bother to learn their faces, or know their names, or what they do, or where they live. He has people — like me — who do that for him. The working staff are as invisible to him as individual tiles in the floor, or bricks in a wall. Years ago, he would have noticed the … decay. The poor quality of service. He would have called on me to answer for it. But he is also aging, just as I am, and has other matters on his mind. He has not noticed, and I have not told him. So he has done nothing.

“If I leave, he will notice. He will report it. Contract Authority will hunt us down. They will find us. They will treat us as traitors and terrorists.”

Eric stared blankly ahead, silent tears on his face. They he scowled.

“You’ve always known this. Yet you agreed to escape to freedom with me. You helped me plan our escape. Did you ever intend to come with me? Or was it always a lie? To send me off to safety alone?”

“I have never lied to you, son.” Ramón’s voice was quiet, but suppressed fury rang in his tone, and reproach covered his face.

Fresh tears sprang to Eric’s eyes. “Then something else changed. What is going on, Papa?”

The anger and reproach on Ramón’s face blew away like dust in a hot summer wind.

“What changed, Papa?”

Ramón was silent for a long time. Eric waited.

“Elon is dead,” Ramón said at last, as though that explained anything at all. Eric merely shook his head.

“Who is Elon?”

“His friend. They were the last two of their kind. They were working on a final project together, he said the most important project he had ever attempted. He did not want disturbances. He barely wanted to eat. But Elon has been ill, and this morning, when he did not answer, I reported it. Contract Authority confirmed that Elon is dead, of natural causes associated with old age.”

“I don’t understand. So he lost a friend. We’ve all lost friends.”

“You are not thinking clearly, son. Work it out.”

Eric scowled and looked at his feet.

“I see,” he said at last. “He was distracted by his project with this friend. He would not have missed you right away. We could both have left, and would have been beyond reach before it was reported. Now, he has no friend, and no project, and he’ll be calling for you at all hours. If you aren’t there….”

Ramón smiled and nodded. “Remember in the future to think before you speak. As I’ve told you countless times.”

Eric shrugged off the rebuke.

“We should still take the chance, Papa. Contract Authority has lost a lot of men, and they are overworked controlling riots and massacres in the gated enclaves. They are stretched very thin. Why would they look for us?”

“Because of who he is,” Ramón replied. “The Contract Authority was created to serve men like him. Their charter is to track down runaway employees, not quell riots among employees who have stayed. His report of a runaway will gain their full attention. Even if the enclaves are burning.”

“But what about the people giving us passage? Can’t they protect us?”

Ramón shook his head.

“Much of the passage fee is to bribe the Authority to look the other way. If he reports us, Authority won’t honor the bribe.”

Eric began to sob openly, and he clenched and unclenched his hands as he wept. Ramón pulled Eric’s head into his shoulder and held him close. Eric clung to his father like a child.

When Eric’s weeping was done, he released his father and pushed himself away. He stared at Ramón with reddened eyes.

“Then I must stay, too. I can’t go without you.”

Ramón smiled with sudden tears in his eyes.

“No, Eric. You don’t need me any more. You are no longer a boy. You are a man, and you will thrive in your new home.”

“That’s not what I meant, Papa. I meant I can’t go, and leave you here. He is a cruel man. Things will get worse, and he will take out his rage and disappointment on you, as he has in the past. I can’t leave you to face that, all alone.”

Ramón glanced at the shiny disk on his wrist, then rubbed his face with his other hand.

“Eric, there is so much I want to tell you, but time is growing short.

“Yes, once I rose out of the lower echelons, he noticed me, and was cruel to me, and many nights, especially after a beating, I went to my bed dreaming of my hands tight around his throat. But by that time, I had you, and your mother had died, and I knew that if I showed so much as a hint of my murderous thoughts, they would tear up my contract and send me to the slums, and sell your contract on the open market. As a child. You know what that would have meant.

“So instead, I swallowed my pride, and endured. I continued to rise in rank. He came to trust me, and then to depend upon me. I grew close enough that I could have killed him. Perhaps even made it look natural. But I was always afraid I would make a mistake, and they would find me out, and execute me, and I can only guess what they would have done to you. Something unbearable.

“I endured. I adjusted staffing quotas to ensure you had work, and rations. I’ve kept you close to the compound and off the hard labor lists. I’ve structured my life so that you could live until a real opportunity came along. That time has come. You must take passage. You must go. Because you are right: this place is dying. The entire civilization is dying. If you stay, you will die with it. You will make everything I endured meaningless.

“Please, Eric. Go. Let me stay and do what I need to do, so that you can go, and be free. Please.”

Eric studied his father’s face for a long moment, then took a deep breath.

“I will go, Papa. And you will stay. And I will tell my sons, and daughters, and anyone who will listen, what you did for me.”

Ramón smiled, and the smile at last caused the unshed tears to fall and rain down his cheeks.

“Then it is time, my son,” Ramón said, and rose.

They turned and walked back through the metal forest toward the compound.

“Once I’m safely en route, will you kill him?”

Ramón walked in silence for a while.

“No,” he said at last. Eric glanced at him in surprise, and saw that his father also had a puzzled expression on his face.

“Why not?” Eric asked.

Ramón said nothing for a long moment. Then he spoke, hesitantly.

“I saw the project he and Elon were working on. They had decided to fix the climate. Just the two of them. They would put their vast financial empires together, and get the job done. They had a plan. I don’t know enough to tell you if it was a good plan, or a bad plan, or just a fantasy of old men. They spoke as if they thought it would work. But they were stuck on one, final point, something they could not get around.”

“What was that?” Eric asked.

“They could not figure out how to make it profitable.”

Eric stopped walking, his mouth open. Ramón stopped, and turned back to face his son. They stared at each other. And then Ramón’s lips twitched slightly, and they both burst out laughing uncontrollably.

The laughter at last subsided, and they quickened their pace toward the compound. Ramón’s face grew sad as they walked.

“When I understood that they could not move forward with a plan to save the Earth because it would not make them wealthier, I understood something about both of them that I had never imagined. 

“They were afraid. Their lives were consumed by that fear. They were like dogs that keep eating, not because they are hungry, but because they are afraid of becoming hungry. They eat to try to quell, not their hunger, but their fear. They eat until they are in pain, and then eat more until their stomachs burst, and they die. Their fear does not allow them to do otherwise.

“He has always had apple pie on his birthday, since he was a boy. A few years ago, his chefs could not prepare his birthday pie, because there were no apples to be found, at any price. 

“He screamed at the cooks. He had the head chef beaten. When he finally grasped that we couldn’t find apples, he ordered us to plant an apple orchard, at enormous expense, in a special climate-controlled garden with seed we acquired from a seed ark: the seeds never germinated. Then he wanted us to buy a biotech company to create new heat-resistant apple seeds — but there weren’t any such companies left, and their employees’ contracts had all been scattered to other industries.

“He is the richest, most powerful man in the world, and he can’t have apple pie on his birthday. And he can’t seem to grasp why this is the case.”

They had reached the compound door, and Eric shouldered his pack.

“I no longer hate him,” Ramón said. “I pity him. He’s caused himself far more pain than he ever caused me. And he has nothing to show for it. His last friend is dead, and all his wealth cannot buy him a final taste of apple pie. I’m the fortunate one: I have a son, who is going to make a life for himself in a place where the rain still falls.

“So no, son, I’m not going to kill him. I’m going to continue to serve him as I have for so many years, and try to make his last days more comfortable.”

They embraced. Then both wiped away their tears, and Eric turned and strode away without looking back.

Super Tuesday

I voted in the California Democratic primary yesterday. We’re in one of those remote regions where there is no actual polling place: ours is all done by mail. Somehow, when we moved, my registration didn’t move with me, and while my wife’s ballot came a week or two ago, mine didn’t come, and didn’t come, and here comes Super Tuesday. So I found the county election office (it’s in town) and went there in person to get my ballot, and I voted. I even wore the “I Voted” sticker.

I voted for Bernie.

There were a lot of factors involved, but in the end, the biggest item was the young voters.

I wrote an open letter to Nancy Pelosi some time back, in response to an old video clip in which she was dismissively grandma-‘splainin’ to a young voter that “we are capitalists” — she seemed exasperated that he didn’t seem to understand this. I pointed out in my letter that, no, “we” are not capitalists. In particular, the young man she was talking down to was clearly not a capitalistIn the end, he is going to win, for one, simple, unarguable reason: he’s going to outlive Pelosi. He’s going to outlive me. His beliefs and attitudes are going to control the future. Not ours.

Elders preserve their beliefs and attitudes by passing them on to the young, by selling them to the young, if you will. When the elders are unconvincing and the young don’t buy what they are selling, those beliefs and attitudes die out.

Our time has already passed.

If you look at the young voters, they are all in for Bernie. They have plenty of good reason to be, of course. But I also see how idealistic the young are — and remember how idealistic I was back in the day — and I think they will walk away from the election almost en masse rather than vote for someone they think is the wrong person.

Put Biden up against Trump, and the young will not vote at all. Or they will throw away their vote on a write-in candidate.

Our time has passed. It is time to let the young take the torch.

WTF Is Going On?

On Facebook, a friend of mine was asking how it was that conservatives and liberals in this country are accusing each other of hatred, dishonesty, ignorance, fanaticism, and numerous other sins of the mind and soul. We’re all quite certain we’re doing none of that, and that the other guy is absolutely guilty of all of that.

But then he turns it around on us, and we wonder if he’s a Russian troll gaslighting us, and then laughing when we start doubting ourselves.

I think there are plenty of Russian trolls out there, especially on Facebook. And I think there are plenty of people of bad intention and bad faith gaslighting us because they are small-souled people who think it’s funny.

But I find it hard to believe that so MANY people are such shmucks. I think there’s something else going on.

Here was my response to the post, which the poster liked quite a lot.

For what it’s worth:


We are, in my experience, very poor judges of ourselves, and of our own core value systems. We also tend to lie to protect ourselves, our reputations, and our power. We lie to ourselves all the time.

These personal lies tangle with the cultural lies we tell ourselves as a society.

Let’s start with the cultural lies.

Our nation no longer bears much resemblance to what we say about it. We do not have a democracy in the US, or anything like a democracy. We have a huge, but inflexible and fragile economy that is teetering perpetually on the edge of collapse, because it must grow proportionally to survive, and it can no longer grow proportionally. Our society has moved very far indeed from any kind of “free” society: nearly all of us are job-slaves, with our housing, our food, our medicines, and even our friendships and communities tied to a rationing system that is grotesquely inequitable, and — for most of the population — insufficient for our basic survival needs. The “successful” must pull up roots and move anywhere at the behest of their masters: should they refuse, they are not sold to another master, but rather, must to sell themselves to another master on the auction block. When we become too old or ill to be useful to a new master, we are sidelined, warehoused, and forgotten. We are profoundly racist, sexist, ageist, and classist.

In other words, most of the things we repeat endlessly about our nation are lies.

I think the main difference between conservatives and liberals is the nature of the lies and rationalizations they are willing to tell themselves about our nation.

Conservatives have crafted a “conservative mythology” in which this crumbling nation is beset by immigrants, lazy bums, badly-raised “millennials,” and whining left-wing socialists. If we could just get rid of all those worthless parasites, everything would be fine.

Liberals have crafted a “liberal mythology” in which this crumbling nation is beset by greedy capitalists, corrupt bribe-takers in Congress, dishonest elections, and lying right-wing fascists. If we could just get rid of all those sociopaths, everything would be fine.

Both viewpoints are lies told to protect the fundamental lie that we still live in a strong, young, vigorous, viable democracy.

I would say that both sides have drunk the toxic kool-aid. They just prefer different flavors.

That said, there are two distinctly different flavors.

Conservatives tend toward authoritarianism. That’s been borne out by many studies.

I saw a conservative comment the other day saying “Yay! Trump 2020, 2024, 2028, 2032!” and some other conservative who was shocked enough to say, “You want a dictator?” I would say that the true answer, in general, is yes. Not that most conservatives would admit to that openly (though many would), since it runs against our cultural lies about how democracy-is-best. But authoritarians crave a structure of authority, and are really just fine with a dictator. They all want a “good” dictator, of course, but that mostly means one who aligns well with the lies they tell themselves. Like a dictator who will build a wall to keep out the evil immigrants, which will solve all the problems of a crumbling society.

When we get into politics itself, there is a lot of very deep corruption, which you would expect in a crumbling republic. It’s impossible to discern true motives, because the politicians are all working with propagandists to craft a “message,” meaning a way to sweeten what is bitter. All of them. Are they really in it for the power? The money (licit and illicit)? The adulation? Are they trying to preserve the republic, or loot it as it goes down?

Surprising comments pop out of their mouths from time to time. They always claim “they misspoke.” I tend to think that for just a moment, they lost focus, and accidentally spoke their truth.

Given that most people are trying to preserve the lie of living in a viable and everlasting republic, they start off confused and get more confused by the antics of the politicians.

Then we come to Trump. All the evidence points to him being a pathological narcissist, and if that’s true, his motives are quite straightforward: it’s all about him. Adulation, power, and wealth. His behavior is consistent with that, including the stream of self-aggrandizing lies he tells.

For some reason, people are fascinated by narcissists, and are more than happy to promote them to positions of adulation, power, and wealth. Maybe it’s a survival thing: when you have a pack of starving wolves attacking your tribe, it’s not the best time to sit down and have a debate over the best way to deal with them.

Given that the republic is failing, it isn’t surprising that large numbers of people would turn to a narcissist, and particularly conservative authoritarians. We all feel the collapse. We want it to stop. We want someone to tell us what to do.