Thursday, September 29, 2022

Two Giants

In the past month we lost two people who in my estimation were among the most influential world leaders of my lifetime. 

Both presided over enormous changes that took place in their respective countries. 

Both saw the vast empires they ruled over, diminish greatly during their watch.

One represents a bygone era, the other, a seemingly anachronistic institution still going strong. 

The death of one caused the world to stop in its tracks, while the other was barely noticed. 

I can honestly think of no world leader who single-handedly brought about as much change during my life as did Mikhail  Gorbachev. Gorbachev did not set out to destroy the Soviet Union, nor did he aim to bring about an end to Communism. Much like Alexander Dubček, the President of Czechoslovakia during the brief period of reform in 1968 known as Prague Spring, Gorbachev was a devoted Communist who also happened to believe in human rights, especially the right of people to choose their destiny. Given the unprecedented opportunity thanks to Gorbachev, the people of the Soviet Union overwhelmingly chose to not be under the sphere of influence of Moscow anymore, And just like that, the Soviet Union came down like a house of cards. The current dictator of Russia, himself not a believer in Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika, would describe the breakup of the Soviet Union as the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century. Like all the king's horses and all the king's men, Putin is doing his damndest to put his Humpty Dumpty empire back together again, to little success. Where he'll stop, nobody knows, even if it means destroying his own country and its people in the process, The only thing certain is there will be much more needless bloodshed before he's finished with his evil work. 

You can read about Gorbachev. through the lens of the Czech and Slovak people here.

And here I wrote about Queen Elizabeth II, through the lens of her parents and what they passed on to their daughter, the commitment of service to their people. 

I was about to say something I thought was profound on the Queen's passing this month but thought the better of it after I read the following, written by one of her "subjects".

These are the words of Simon Watney, a Facebook friend of a friend, by far the most eloquent, thoughtful and powerful comments I've read or heard on the Queen since her death a few weeks ago. In between all the hagiographic biographies and the tiresome critiques of the evils of colonialism we've been subject to in the past few weeks, Mr. Watney's words ring honest and true:

The old queen is dying and in spite of all the groveling and gushing of banal television commentators, it strikes me as an immensely moving moment, temporarily frozen between two eras, as time moves into an altogether different, symbolic gear, and ancient protocols obtain which mark the passing of monarchs, which have happily not been exercised since the death of her father back in 1952. The butt of countless jokes and parodies, the woman’s true dignity now emerges with touching clarity, as she was seen only last week visiting a bleak hospice and cheerfully dispensing her own inimitable brand of what one might simply term “life-joy” to its fortunate recipients. This I take to be the sense of being valued by someone who matters, of being close to some immensely powerful spring of energy, which is what remains of the royal healing touch, and the most atavistic and shamanic core of monarchy. Societies live by symbols as much as anything else, and as we reach the end of this long Elizabethan age, it is difficult not to wish that it could continue indefinitely, since it ties us in to far more glorious times than ours, to the post-war optimism which gave us the NHS and our membership of the European Union, to an England where altruism was the norm, rather than the incomprehensible and indeed reprehensible nonsense that it so clearly seems to our current national leadership. Indeed, nothing could provide more contrast than the crudely individualistic selfishness, which is celebrated in the toxic cult of Mrs Thatcher, and the endearingly dotty, dog-loving aura of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II. At this moment of her passing, how could one not think of her great Tudor sister and noble predecessor, whose memory remains warm and vital with a popularity which she took the greatest care to fuel in her lifetime, just as I expect the memory of our Elizabeth will remain, as long as anything worth cherishing remains of our sadly dented national identity? Now is the appropriate time to sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings, and queens. Our Elizabeth was the queen who moved the monarchy out from its castles. Whether it can survive the move is an open question. Soon the bells will start to ring, appropriately muffled.

Not much more to say so I''ll just leave it at that.


Thursday, September 8, 2022

Culture Wars

As if he weren't already the most despised human being in Washington, D.C., Texas senator Ted Cancún Cruz has added a few more groups of people to his mutual aversion society.

In response to President Biden's recent executive order on the government helping to relieve college debt, Cruz said this on his podcast:
If you are that slacker barista who wasted seven years in college studying completely useless things, now has loans and can't get a job—Joe Biden just gave you 20 grand. Like, holy cow! 20 grand. 
I'll give him credit for one thing, "Slacker Barista" or better yet, "The Slacker Baristas" is one heck of a name for a rock band. But I do question the wisdom of a politician dumping one particular group of American workers down the toilet.

I get what Cruz was trying to accomplish: perpetuate the culture wars that are all the rage now in this country. The term barista evokes high-end coffee establishments whose clientele is often associated with well-educated urban dwellers, the perceived "elite", particularly despised by the MAGA crowd Cruz is pandering to. 

But by slamming baristas, the people who work behind the counters of those establishments, Cruz by extension is berating all workers in the service industry. While he didn't cite wait staff at other food establishments, retail workers, or any other American whose job it is to serve the public, he may as well have. Many people who work in the service industry are college graduates with school debt. By further extension, Cruz is slamming all Americans with college degrees who are working in jobs that don't necessarily require college degrees. 

Perhaps these folks are not working the job of their dreams at the moment, perhaps they are working their way up to it, perhaps they are going through hard times or best of all, perhaps they are perfectly happy with what they are doing. My response to Cruz on the matter is this:

Who the fuck are you to judge these people, asswipe?

I'd be more explicit but perhaps children are reading this. 

How dare he call baristas "slackers", a term appropriate for folks who habitually short-change their portion of the bill at a restaurant, deadbeat dads, and save for a small handful of them, Republican legislators, but certainly not for gainfully employed, hard-working Americans. 

After all, what could define slacker behavior more than a Princeton and Harvard graduate with a distinguished record at both prestigious schools, engaging in sophomoric rants against his fellow citizens who have done him no harm? What could define a slacker more than a highly educated man, a lawyer who has argued cases before the Supreme Court no less, publicly buying into the obvious lie that the last election was stolen from the previous president?  And what could define a slacker more than a senator going on vacation to a resort in Mexico in the middle of a dire crisis faced by his constituents?

OK maybe slacker isn't the best term to describe Ted Cruz, perhaps scumbag is more on target. 

Cruz wasn't done slamming constituencies from whom he could have at one time garnered at least a few votes:
You know, maybe you weren't gonna vote in November. And suddenly you just got 20 grand. And you know, if you can get off the bong for a minute and head down to the voting station, or just send in your mail-in ballot that the Democrats have helpfully sent you—it could drive up turnout, particularly among young people.
It seems particularly foolish to me anyway, for a politician to insult an entire generation of Americans, especially those who will be around for a long time and will very likely remember you and your idiotic comments about them, especially at "the voting station" at election time. I had no idea how old Cruz was until I looked it up the other day, for all I knew, he could have been in his eighties. It turns out Cruz was born in 1970, placing him squarely within the group known as "Generation X".

I'm not going to get into making value judgements of different generations as obviously no one has control over when they were born. But the times in which someone grows up certainly has a tremendous influence on an individual in terms of personal experience and one's outlook on the world. I have to say that I am privileged to be part of the "Baby Boomer" generation (the tail end of it to be specific), the one just previous to GenX. As such I'm old enough to remember the tumultuous era of the sixties and early seventies, both its highs and its lows:
  • I saw the Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show live on TV. 
  • I remember Martin Luther King being very much alive, marching here in Chicago, and the Civil Rights Movement before and after his assassination. 
  • I remember the devastation the Vietnam War wrought on that country and ours as well. 
  • I lived through two major 1968 riots that took place a few miles away from my home, one on the West Side of Chicago after Dr. King was killed, and one downtown during the Democratic National Convention. 
  • I saw my Czech father, tears in his eyes reporting to us that troops of the Warsaw Pact under the control of the Soviet Union had just invaded Czechoslovakia.  
  • I vividly remember Watergate and the only resignation of an American president to date.
  • And I watched live as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.
The era in which I grew up was both exhilarating and terrifying, and I wouldn't trade my experiences of having experienced that time for the world. 

So many in-your-face current events brought right into your living room courtesy of the TV, in the days when everyone was watching more or less the same broadcast, made people my age very aware of the greater world outside of our own little private worlds. You simply could not avoid it.
Yet long after those days, I'm afraid there is little of substance to distinguish my generation from previous or subsequent ones. For example, I can't say the passionate, idealistic Baby Boomers of the sixties and early seventies have done a particularly good job at running our country or our world when it became our turn; we seem to have repeated the mistakes of our elders, and even created new ones that later generations will have to deal with. 
While we may have become complacent in our old age, one thing my generation has going for us is we do tend to vote, which does distinguish us from Ted Cruz's generation as well as the subsequent ones. I for one have only missed voting in one election since I became eligible to do so, a school board election in suburban Oak Park, Illinois about forty years ago. Yea me. 

One thing that my generation definitely shares with subsequent ones, is our fondness for getting high. 

Where exactly Cruz comes off blasting a generation not his own for skipping voting because they're too busy getting stoned is a mystery to me. Perhaps it's his own experience of doing just that. 

In his comments, Cruz implies that the president's executive order is a cynical attempt to get more votes for Democrats in the upcoming November elections. Now I get that college debt forgiveness is a controversial subject and that people have valid arguments against it. However, Cruz seems to ignore the fact that Joe Biden ran on a platform of removing college debt; in fact, many on the other side claim that the president didn't go far enough this time. Whether it results in more Democratic votes in November or not, there is absolutely nothing cynical about Biden's act. Having grown up during the heyday of the Chicago political machine when our Department of Streets and Sanitation always did a superlative job cleaning the streets and alleys the week before an election, I happen to know a thing or two about cynical acts designed to get votes. Sorry Ted but the president here is merely fulfilling a campaign promise. 

Then there is something more insidious in Cruz's comments apart from their nastiness, partisanship and old-fogeyism. 

In his comments, education itself is under attack. 

In much of the civilized world, education is a prized asset, not just because it enables a person to get a fancy job and make lots of money, but because those "useless things" students study in college tend to open them up to a whole new world, ideally anyway, and help create well-rounded people who can think effectively and critically on their own.
Of course, opening up a whole new world doesn't resonate with the MAGA crowd. Look at their pathological obsession with the issue of immigration, or their stance on LBGTQ rights.

As has been abundantly clear since the exPOTUS began his run for office in 2015, independent, critical thinking is not valued in the MAGA world either. It was Kellyanne Conway early on in the Trump administration, who put it in the most Orwellian of terms when she said: "there are facts, and then there are alternate facts." In other words, there is no difference between facts and opinions. As everybody is entitled to his or her opinion, everyone according to the MAGA crowd should believe whatever "facts" he or she wants to believe, verifiable fact or alternate fact; to them they are the same in terms of validity. 

But it's education itself that is most under attack from the MAGA right. Republican state legislatures in red states have inserted themselves into the role of arbiters over what children should and should not be taught and allowed and not allowed to read in school. 

Under the guise of "parental control", they are banning discussion and materials on human sexuality and alternative lifestyles in the school setting.

Using the red herring of "Critical Race Theory", they are decreeing that schools limit or even eliminate entirely the discussion of race in schools.

And rallying the troops around the curious battle cry "We Ain't Woke!!!", they are eliminating curriculum which dares to go beyond the laudatory praise of all things American. 

It seems that the only guiding principle of these surrogate "educators" is to turn students into those "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" monkeys you see at giftshops, hardly a useful method to encourage children to become well-rounded, creative, thoughtful, critical thinking adults. 

This is not surprising because as they say: "an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people." That catchy aphorism is often incorrectly attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but I believe it is spot on just the same. The contrary is also true, totalitarianism thrives on an uneducated citizenry.

As we saw, Ted Cruz himself is far from uneducated. Yet he's more than happy to demonize people who like himself, sought out higher education, simply because it fits like a glove into his and MAGA's game plan of trashing the well-educated elite, further fueling the culture wars and dividing our already bitterly divided country. Despite being himself in the elite to the elite category as far as education goes, Cruz talks to the Trumplican base as if he were a second grader, to disguise his own provenance as an Ivy Leaguer two times over.

They say that Cruz is hands down the smartest person in Congress. One of his Harvard professors, Alan Dershowitz, called him "off-the-charts brilliant." So what is one to make of the fact that moments after the insurrection of January 6, 2021 at the Capitol Building, Cruz among several of his Republican colleagues, without a shred of evidence, gave credence to Donald Trump's lie about a stolen election, and voted to reject the vote count of two states in an attempt to block the results of a free and fair American election? 

Here's what I make of it:

Either Cruz is not as smart as people give him credit for, or he is a fraud. Well I've seen him in action several times when he's not trying to portray himself as just a Good 'Ol Boy, a "Red Neck, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer" kind of guy. I can attest to the fact that he is indeed pretty smart. You can make of that whatever you please. 

Sad isn't it that all the brains in the world and the best education money can buy, still can't afford the guy a trace of integrity nor a touch of decency.


If I were you, I'd be careful with that cup of java Teddy.