Got information?

In the early 17th century, Galileo wanted visiting theologians to look through his telescope so that they could see for themselves the moons orbiting Jupiter, and the priests said that they didn’t need to look because the Bible taught them that the earth was the only still center and that everything else revolved around it.  The priests, indeed, went further: they said that the moons could not exist for this reason and that the telescope must be faulty.  In the 17th century and thereafter, as people got used to the idea of scientific evidence, and to the idea that the Bible was all the more powerful and truthful when read as poetry, the initial conflict between science and religion in Europe dwindled to the point where both groups realized that they occupied a different space in human thought and experience.  Science was shown to have little or nothing to say about God, and religion could only benefit from the greater understanding of, and increased awe for, God’s creation that scientific investigation invariably brought about.

This debate — between those whose thinking is based upon evidence, and those whose thinking is based upon precept — underpins the political oppositions of our age.  Left-wingers say what they say based upon information they have, whereas those on the right say what they say based upon ideas they have.  George W. Bush and Dick Cheney tried to shape the world according to ideas they had; President Obama changes things on the basis of information he has.  The former, in effect, is dramatic, catastrophic and often illegal; the latter is pedestrian, piecemeal and often ineffectual.

Let’s take an issue like the death penalty.  If you do some research, you will find that there is no evidence to show that capital punishment is a deterrent.  That is, it is not an effective punishment in that it does not reduce the crime rate.  In fact, there is some evidence to show that because of the ‘brutalization effect’ crime rates rise, particularly in the vicinity of the location of executions.  But this evidence does not make any difference to the person (George W. Bush, with his 131 executions in Texas under his watch as governor) who moves in his thinking not from evidence but from an idea, say, of ‘just retribution.’ In the former Texas governor’s mind it is right to execute a murderer no matter what the evidence or outcome. For the left-winger, however, there are a host of other issues to discuss when considering the death penalty, not least among them being race, a flawed legal system that has too often executed the innocent, and the above mentioned ‘brutalization effect.’

It’ s the same with the abortion debate, or any discussion about whether or not to go to war in given  circumstances, or even whether public education is worth the price or not.

Maybe the way forward is to persistently persuade right-wingers to consider the information, while at the same time to convince the left-winger of the usefulness and importance of a given precept.


Words and the End of American Democracy: Part Two

Then, there’s the other side of the coin, the trade union meeting or farmers’ collective where members are terrified of individualism, and, as a result, never get anything done and/or become so afraid of innovation that change becomes the enemy.  In this context we can begin to see what a ‘strong individual’ might mean for an effective group and what a properly functioning group might imply about the meaning of a strong individual.  In these musings there are no absolutes and no clear black or white.  The individual and the group temper each other.  For example, an inert group can be roused into action by the urgings of an energetic individual; and a strident individual with a tendency to railroad others can be refined into understanding by the multiple perspectives of the group.  I hope a reader is finding this obvious.  The problem is that our political discourse will not allow for this kind of complicity of ideas.

One difficulty is that when we situate this straightforward thinking in the context, say, of the current Republican debates or Fox News coverage of the daily work of our President, everything suddenly appears complex.  The language used in these two forums has become almost incomprehensible.  What can it mean when Newt Gingrich uses the expression ‘real capitalism’ or Mitt Romney says that he does not have lobbyists working for him?  We are in the deep waters of equivocation.  We are in a space where it is impossible to have a problem-solving discussion.  We are in an arena of pure power struggle.  It does not make any difference that the words mean little or nothing.  The only thing that matters is that the individual politician be seen to support a particular power bloc, and then be chosen by this bloc to support its interests.  The strange thing about Romney and Gingrich is that they are seeking the approval of the same bloc (the 1%) but need the votes of a substantial number of the 99%.  So, the objective is to effectively hoodwink as many of the 99% as possible.  And there lies the key to the survival of American plutocracy: the media has been set up over many decades in such a way (see Chomsky’s ‘Manufacturing Consent’) as to convince the people that they are participating in a democracy, while what is really happening is that we are being offered a circus of equivocation that poses as debate, while the only real change that takes place does so in back rooms among bought politicians who continue to consolidate the power of the wealthy through outrageous legislation that twists our language into a meaningless mess (‘corporations are people and money is speech’).

How can we live in a country where there are hungry children?

How can we live in a country where there are hungry children?  Could it be that we have had, throughout our history, so many idiots screaming about the primacy of competition that we have forgotten that it is only a criminal who competes with a child?  Could it be that the wealthy have accumulated so much for themselves that there is not enough left for those who cannot accumulate?  Could it be that, though a section of our population crows endlessly about ‘family values,’ what we really value is not real family but the prissy ideal of the nuclear family?  Could it be that we are fundamentally cruel?  We have become torturers.  We invade other countries without reason.  We support dictators who murder their own people.  We have become the world’s nightmare.  I am beginning to think that if we could feed our children, we would solve all of our problems.

Words and the End of American Democracy

As someone who scribbles a lot, I get upset when words, through misuse, become meaningless or misleading, particularly important words, like ‘fuck’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘fun.’

 Back in the dark ages – when I was a student – a writer I used to enjoy called George Steiner wrote a series of essays about how Hitler’s rhetoric weakened the German language, draining much of its meaning.  This was my first encounter with this kind of discussion.  Since then, as I said, it makes me crazy when someone like Ronald Reagan calls Somoza’s torturers, the Nicaraguan Contras, ‘freedom fighters;’ or when Fox News calls our moderate and centrist President a ‘socialist.’

Languages are alive.  If we don’t take care of them, they can get sick and die.  They can be murdered.  Yes, languages are resilient, they can take a lot of abuse, but I’m not sure the English language has ever been as abused as it is today, with plutocratic politicians and corporate media, saturating our lives, the airwaves, the internet, public discourse etc. with Orwellian propaganda.

It seems to me that our public discourse has been degraded to the point where it is almost impossible to have a discussion about any difficult issue because the words we use have been damaged so much.  Take the word ‘individualism.’  I have heard it thrown around a lot recently by stock market traders, politicians, and CEOs among others.  It is used to justify Wall Street criminality and greed, as if being an individualist means being able to do anything you like, as if care for your community and the welfare of others were somehow un-American and a sign of weakness.  This is the kind of crap that Ayn Rand goes on about.  ‘Individualism’ can be used today in the US to justify any horror perpetrated by the so-called free market (child labor, for example) in exactly the same way as the word ‘communism’ can and has justified mass starvation.  Can we get beyond these ridiculous and empty isms already and do some clear, sane thinking?


Individuals and communities are just as important as each other.  In fact, it is not possible to define one without the other.  In a democracy, this is the starting point.  Ayn Rand was educated in a public university.  Think about it.  Bill Gates built his empire on the invention of the United States Army.  The most successful people are strong individuals, yes, but nobody ever does anything on their own.

I wrote a book recently.  Yes, I’m a clever boy.  Yes, I was the one who put the words on the page, making decisions about order, rhythm, imagery etc.  Yes, I have a talent.  But I’d be very, very stupid (like Rand) if I thought that I wrote the book alone.  Or, to put it another way, if I were alone, there would be no book.  Books are by definition the products of civilized society, products of community, products of the individual in community.

Bill Gates did not earn all of those billions of dollars.  We all did.  By encouraging Bill to think that he did it all by himself, our society has done everyone, including Bill himself, a great disservice.  In fact, we have destroyed our democracy.  And it may be too late.

Best Bread Ever: Brown Rice Bread

This bread is another great find. Everyone in the family likes it and so I will be able to bake it for years to come. It also has a ‘hearty’ scale, meaning that if you add more or less brown rice and whole wheat flour, you can make it more or less hearty to suit your taste.

First, pressure cook your rice.  I’m doing this – sunny, winter morning, the light pouring into the kitchen – as I write.  I got a twelve pound bag of organic long grain rice for just over a dollar a pound in Costco recently.   Summer rice yes, but a good buy nevertheless.  Put two tablespoons of active dried yeast in a bowl with half a cup of warm water, stir it to a paste, and let sit for ten minutes.  You’re going to need three cups of warm water in all.  Mix a quarter cup of honey or blue agave (the Mexican plant they make tequila from), two teaspoons of salt, and a third of a cup of dried milk into the remaining water.  Put all this in your mixing bowl, if you haven’t done so already.   The order in which you do things will depend on your utensils.  I have a heavy duty mixer that I invested in a few years ago.  I used to like kneading the dough; I’d approach it as a kind of repetitive meditation, but it’s hard work, so I’m now attached to my mixer.

The water with the agave, the salt, and the dried milk are now in the mixing bowl with the yeast.  Add two cups of cooked rice and one cup of whole wheat flour.  Again, this can vary up to three cups of rice and nearly as much as two cups of whole wheat flour.  If you let those ingredients go over those measures, your bread will be too heavy.

Add six cups of unbleached organic white flour into the mixing bowl and mix.  If the dough is too sticky add a little more flour, but not too much. Place dough in a greased bowl, cover with plastic food wrap and let rise for up to an hour or until the dough is twice the size.  Enjoy the magic and/or the chemistry, depending on your bent: the yeast eats the sugars and produces carbon dioxide which makes the bread rise.  Of course, a moment’s thought might make you ask, what is magic but natural phenomena that haven’t yet been explained?  Actually, even when you ‘explain’ phenomena, there is, thankfully, still magic.  ‘The yeast eats the sugar!’  What exactly does that mean?

Roll the dough on a board and cut and shape into three loaves.  Place into greased baking pans.  Let rise again for up to an hour, then bake for 50 minutes at 375 degrees.

To buy bread like this in the store — an organic, hearty loaf — can cost up to $6 or $7 each, depending.   Given that I haven’t calculated the price of the gas in the cooking process, or the exact price of the agave or the water, nor have I included my labor, my not completely inaccurate calculations about how much my bread costs would work out to something like $2.50 per loaf.  My loaves are about half a size bigger again than what you would get in the store.  I would love to get this bread into the hands of those who are less well-off in our communities.  Spread the word.

spring vegetables

This unbelievable head of spinach, came from a seed planted last year. It survived the winter!

This year I’m planting chard, golden beet, leek, red peppers, kale, yellow and red tomatoes, potatoes, spinach, and a variety of herbs.  There is no assurance that any of them will grow well, though last year the chard was particularly good — crisp and tall and delicate green — but the chanterey carrots were misshapen, so I imagine they needed sandier soil than they found in my plot.  The had legs and looked like little dolls.  But it’s all miraculous anyhow.  Already this year’s vegetables are firm seedlings, some larger than others.  I always feel so lucky when I arrive home from work and have fresh vegetables to pick and chop and cook, the infant on my back, and the rest of the family getting hungrier as the ginger and garlic sizzles in toasted sesame oil.  We have had such a long winter here in New England that the spring has felt more like resurrection than ever.  The earliest signs of buds opening made you breathe a sigh of relief.

Some of the current crop.

Every day now becomes a thanksgiving, and our prayers are always offered for those who go hungry, because, to translate my mother’s phrase into a secular, perhaps pantheistic, insight, ‘there but for the grace of Mother Earth, go we all.’

Patrick Kennedy’s ‘Moonshot’: One Mind for Research

I attended Patrick Kennedy’s ‘One Mind for Research’ event on Wednesday, May 25 at the JFK Library and heard Vice President Biden speak, among other things, about the role of government in sending men to the moon (Buzz Aldrin was also at the gathering, as was Martin Sheen).  There would have been no Apollo missions without the input of inspired government leadership.  There are a lot of people who seem to see no role at all for government in our national lives.  My question is, when did the USA ever do anything as great and inspired as President’s Kennedy’s ‘moonshot’ without the participation of government?

Whether it’s war or scientific research, great art or great institutional progress, there is NO example of national greatness without the participation of government.  Unlike what the keep-government-out-our-lives people say, who constantly wave flags and tell us that they are the patriots, it is clear that they are, in fact, the ones who are un-patriotic, in that they are for themselves alone (individualists who think that economic and social life are only about making money) and not for the people as a whole (communitarians, people who see the individual as responsible to their society).  In order to be patriotic, you have to want to see the nation as a unit as worthy of respect and support, and the nation is little or nothing without competent and inspiring leaders, and active, thoughtful citizens.  Yes, there are examples of individual greatness without the participation of government — though even then, when you look closely, you will see how a smart government facilitates its aspiring and energetic entrepreneurs, with tax breaks, infusions of capital etc.  However, when it came to bailing out the megalomaniacs of Wall Street — individualism gone sociopathic — it took government and the people to be the cavalry coming over the hill.  So, not only are the government and the people key to major national success, they are also key to saving the country from ruin. And where does that put the Wall Street Boyz?  It puts them in the playground with the bold kids that need to be taught how to share and not bully the little girls.   Hasn’t it sunk in yet: the country would have literally fallen apart in 2008 without the intervention of government and taxpayers.  And neither I nor VP Biden — of course — are talking about intrusive or totalitarian government.  We are talking about an American democratic people’s government that serves its people and orchestrates its institutions for the welfare of all.  Can someone, anywhere, give me an example since 1980 of inspired, creative, forward-looking leadership from the anti-government camp?  It is said that President Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviet Union and that this was a great achievement.  This is a delusional fiction.  That ridiculous empire was crumbling of its own accord (collectivism gone sociopathic), and Gorbachov had already told us so in many books.

The assembled gathering on May 25 — Chiefs of Psychiatry, Presidents of this that and the other major organization, researchers in neuroscience, dignitaries and celebrities — were all focused on what it would take to make the USA a leader in the world of brain research.  It was clear that this was going to be a major, multi-faceted operation that included national institutions, private industries, non-profit organizations such as teaching hospitals and the good will and philanthropic support of the people.  This will be difficult enough without the nay-sayers, and unfortunately we have a lot of them.  Given our lunacy over the last few decades, we might even elect another anti-government, anti-scientific President (Sarah Palin!  Donald Trump!) in 2012.  If we do, it won’t be the first time in history that greed and ignorance brought down an empire.  Meanwhile, Brazil and China are waiting in the wings, watching our every f***-up with glee.