Self-Selection 2016

The snout-nosed butterflies are swarming across the county. Their caterpillars eat the leaves of the hackberry tree. Once they’ve exhausted an area’s food supply, they take flight en masse like avatars of autumn, brown and orange wings and twig like bodies fluttering. These falling leaves have a form, a shape, a life energy. They flow.

It’s hard to think of the importance of politics against the backdrop of the natural world, how small it all is. When we are all dust, there will still be butterflies as indifferent to our histories as leaves on the wind. So, I am loathe to waste my energy describing political moments and individuals currently engorging themselves upon the main stage of human society until such a time as the cocoon breaks and the final form reveals itself.

So, let’s talk about the form of this particular insect. He is orange and vile and has a long history of disgusting, destructive behavior. If the godless can have a soul, it would be found in the spirit of movement and direction, the weight of all those little actions and decisions and influences, that accumulate into the shadow of a man – the energy and influence that continues to move when the body is displaced upon the landscape. Our actions and gestures make shadows that we cannot see, footprints or echoes or something in between them. So, even an atheist, avowed, can speak of having soul. I have no reason to believe Trump is intellectually capable of grappling even with his nihilistic brand of atheism. It’s all flowing over his head. And, he is fundamentally wired to misunderstand and abuse his place in time and space.

The pundit class has yet to home in on the most damning thing Trump has said, during the recent debate. It was an off-the-cuff, unprepared remark that carried the secret truth as only those sorts of remarks can. It was also a backpedaling defense, so the snake was recoiling into the lair of fundamental morals that he assumes we all share. To him, it is the obvious thing and anyone would understand it. This is who he is, and where he comes from.

Clinton challenged the notion that business skills translate directly to government service. Trump responded while backing away and defending himself and these off-the-cuff, unprepared words tumbled out of his facehole wrapped in nonsense and confusion:

My obligation right now is to do well for myself, my family, my employees, for my companies.”

Make a list right now of all of the people to whom you are obligated. My list includes my family, my employees, my companies, absolutely. It also includes myself. Consider again the order of the tongue. The first obligation he bears is to himself. His family is next, after himself. If he threw a child under a proverbial bus to gain an advantage for himself, do you think he would do it? Would he negotiate it? How big of a bus? How long would they have to live it down? He certainly throws employees over heartlessly, and the companies that rely on him have all paid the price in shorted contracts and lawsuits and breech of trust.

And, there is no sense of the cosmic in that order. There is only the human, the reflections of the self, the things that work for the self or carry the name of the self. There is nothing in that list that is not part of the aggrandizing of the man at the center of his everything.

My obligation, in all I do, is first to my sense of piety and universal order – call it Christianity or Agnosto-Taoistic-Druidism or some strange hybrid of all faiths wrapped in a wreath of rosemary flowers. First, I am obligated to the shadow I cast upon history, how my life touches all lives. Second, I am obligated to my family.  I am obligated to my community, which includes animals and insects and people and trees. I am obligated to everything by myself. The self is an illusion of vanity. At least, the terms that the orange shadow uses is only an illusion. There is more to life, more mystery and depth and grace, than has ever been even remotely attempted by this particular orange scam machine.

To whom are you obligated first?

The shadow of the butterflies falls at night, when their wings aren’t warm enough to fly and they cannot see. The lightning bugs of late summer come, calling out for love in the dark. There is a world beyond our petty philosophies as indifferent to us as if we do not exist at the center of any story at all in this universe. This is not to say that we must create ourselves a universal center inside our vanity, but to suggest that anyone who does so is fundamentally broken at a deep, spiritual level, and they will never heal, and when they die, the orange stain upon the ground will be consumed by what is real until it was never there. The base of voters that support this beast? They will die, too. They will all die. So will we. In a thousand years, no one will remember our names. The spirit of justice, though, will move through time, and through those brave souls that pushed it along. Justice swarms like butterflies, devouring one forest, then fluttering on to the next profusion. I prefer to think of myself as one of those living leaves upon the wind, pushing into the sky towards the tiniest places where my little pen, little voice, little work will be part of the thing that builds the whole forest ecosystem, in all its green mass and beauty.

 

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The Things We Do For Money Are Things We Do For Love

While traveling overland from Boulder,  Colorado, across the desolation of late season harvested Kansas, and down through the earthquakes and oilfields of Oklahoma, all the way home, to my parents’ house near Dallas, I read a book by Margaret Atwood directly addressing the world I was witnessing out the window of the car. GMO corn was growing all over, where it wasn’t already harvested with a desert behind it. Chicken silos grew creatures plump and mildly retarded, trapped forever in the florescent tubes. Cattle were grazing for the feedlots, which were, blessedly, kept far back from the highways. The corn and sorghum was mostly for the feedlots. All of it was altered, adjusted in the DNA, bred for specific growing conditions scientifically. And, in the wake of it, after the harvest of the thousand miles of corn, a wasteland follows worse than deserts. No wild grasses, no wild creatures, nothing but brown despair and leaching topsoil and whatever chemicals linger in the ground. In Oklahoma, there are earthquakes where there has never before been much in the way of earthquakes. The gases and oils removed from underground, the toxic wastewater pumped down there, all combine to amplify the effects of global warming and destruction. The wind turbines, thank god, offer some hope, like swirling crosses of a Holy Trinity above the Christian plains, but it would seem to be too little, too late. The dogs and wolves and coyotes have all bred together into deadly packs. The pigs have swallowed all the antibiotics and the people will die of the plague again, when our antibiotics don’t work anymore because we ate it all in cheap meat.

All of this economic destruction is about making money, which is really about taking care of ourselves and our families. These things we ruin are done for love. This is a missing note in Atwood’s text, that those who destroy are actually in it because of the love they have for their fellows.

So, I didn’t feel like I was reading science fiction in the sense of the impossible. I was reading cyberpunk, at best, where everything described from company towns to Pleeblands to aggressive genetic crossing felt like what was happening right now, today, in these dull, idyllic cities of the plains.

 

When the antibiotics don’t work anymore, because we decided we liked to eat cheap bacon better than we liked to let the majority of our children survive into old age, we will see the plagues come again, and possibly the end of the world. One major motif in the MadAdam trilogy is the company that created diseases, and also created the cures. This is happening right now. Investor Shell Corporations own fast food and junk food companies that disguise sugar, fat, and salt as healthfood, push it into schools and food stamp programs, and create the diseases that slowly eat the communities. Them that can afford the cure, but the pills from other companies that are also owned by the investmemt shells. So, we eat McDonald’s, and we get sick. We take heart medication, we get treated for cancers, and we blame ourselves for failing to keep our health against the addictions that are fed to us everyday in all forms of media and convenience. It’s a profitable scheme. It happens right now, even though it feels like it must be some kind of joke.

This is a cyberpunk masterpiece, describing the end of the world based on what is happening right now, and it’s hard to read the news about the environment and fail to see it. We’ve built the disaster and sold it. We’ve built the cure and sold it. All we really have to do is stop buying the disaster, but to do so is to be a cultist, a religious lunatic on the fringe of society, a MadAdamite deserving only scorn. In the end, when I reached my mother’s house, I thought of how the rebuilding of everything in the wake of the waterless flood became a pseudoreligious thing, and how I don’t think our rebuilding will be anything but religious, when the plagues return to us. When the desolation of the American Midwest dustbowls again, and the towns are wiped by biotic infections, the ubiquitous crosses of the bumpers and billboards will spread as fast as plagues, and the only false note of Atwood’s text is the reduction in the specific Christian religion after the waterless flood for whatever cult is forming out of the Crakers.

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Forty Mornings at the Pen

As a challenge to myself, I have written a sonnet every day for forty-one days and posted them. The sonnets themselves are written in the morning, first thing, when I am still drinking coffee and convincing an excited dog that it is not time to go for a walk, yet. I sit down and open the web platform and construct a sonnet. I read over it, and try to make it the best I can in that moment. I post the sonnet. Every day, then, for over forty days.

The term forty days and forty nights really doesn’t refer to a specific number of days and nights. It just means a really long time. It’s always an original sonnet. I often, during the day, and especially at night, try to figure out what I might write about in the morning. It often reflects the day I had. I work from the house, and garden and clean and cook and keep animals alive. I observe things about the world, and the creatures that share it. I have my prides and prejudices about the world around me that are quick to emerge over the course of the days of sonnets. Initially intended as a sort of spiritual exercise, I discovered most of my personal spirituality happens in the garden, a little in the chores. The interior world of the soul is a reflection of the perceived reality of the world around us. I think, perhaps, that environmental factors are an under-appreciated aspect of the spiritual life in popular Western culture, and that the little daily chores accumulate a focus and energy that can be imbued with the spirit through the sacraments of the quotidian. I also find myself writing often about my attempts to understand my own relationship with nature, and nature’s relationship with me.

There are words that keep appearing, too, and I did not realize how much they were a part of my interior vocabulary. The words we use everyday do not often carry with them the notion that they are capable of cosmic ideas, for these words are, for us who use them, the tools we use to do everything and anything quotidian. Yet, it is these tools that feel so mundane by which we are most capable of approaching what we truly mean when we speak of things that are conceptual. The words that form the bedrock of my soul are not deep or grand. They roll off my tongue with a simplicity and familiarity of so much use that the words have become invisible, so much a bedrock that I can’t even see how much of me is built upon them. Over the course of days, expressing ideas as best I can with the tools that I have, the chaff and bluster is quickly stripped away. It is a grueling thing to attempt a sonnet every day. It is only a few days in that it feels like folly. I don’t believe that what I wrote is amazing, but I feel that it was as true as I could make it. I don’t believe that any of it will last or ring down the halls of time. I do believe that it is a course in personal language, a window into where my imagination stands, and where the guts of my brain are moving.

Write a sonnet every day. Forty days and forty nights, which is another way of saying a really long time, until the sonnets start to hurt. Write a sonnet every day until the task feels too big, and the whimsy and joy has been stripped back and it’s a chore, a hard, breaking task. Write a sonnet every day until the mind is stripped away of all the pride and prejudice of penmanship and self-perception is broken into bits. Write a sonnet every day and see who you are, right now, in this late summer heat.

Forty-one sonnets, and probably more. I will write until I’ve broken myself and broken myself again.

http://jmmcdermott.blogspot.com/2016/06/sonnet-1.html

 

 

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The Only Ones by Carola Dibbel – a review

I struggle with where to begin with talking about The Only Ones by Carola Dibbel. It isn’t so much because I don’t know what to say, but because there is so much to talk about. The future is marred by terrible pandemic flus. The narrator is a distinctive voice and force of nature. The relationship between mother and child  – or mother and clone – is excellently drawn. What else is there to say?

A kind of innocence wraps around Inez — or I., as she is called. At the beginning of the novel, she has already been through everything that catastrophes can bring to a life. She was orphaned by plagues, raised in a basement apartment by a woman who eventually dies in a fire. Inez has been selling genetic material and eggs – teeth, blood, anything – to make a living. She has a third grade education, since plagues shut down the schools. She has survived. Her single greatest trait is that she seems to be immune from all the diseases of the world. And, along with this, her greatest trait to readers is that she remains an innocent, hopeful, interested in the future, and always trying her best. She never gives up, or loses hope, or surrenders to any darkness. It is as if the very genetic hardiness that made her immune to the plagues wrapped around her soul, too, to make her immune to all hardships.

She works with rogue geneticists in New Jersey to harvest and clone her genetic material. They sell it on the black market. The first time they do it, in an elaborate cloning operation that no one is completely sure will work, their customer is upset that the clones will have no piece of her genetic material or mitochondria or anything. It will just be a clone of Inez. For a while, she seems to get over this, though, knowing that these daughters will not die in the plagues – cannot die. Her genetics make her immune to viruses and bacteria. Then, the unthinkable happens: The customer backs out at the last minute, when one of the children is “born” from a tank, the only one to survive the first process. In her stipulated desire, the customer insists that Inez takes the child instead of the rogue geneticists. The lab men would only raise the child to sell her genetic material, in her mind. Inez took the child to the wastelands of New York, where the diseases had emptied out the apartments and avenues. She raised her, in this limited and limiting world, and tries to do a good job. Again, Inez had a third grade education, and came up through the specter of disease, physical and sexual abuse, and the death of everyone she knew. She never tells her daughter anything about herself, her past, or even the way her daughter was created, against the law in a rogue genetics lab in New Jersey.

It’s a brilliant book, driven by the character and voice of Inez, and the powerful world-building of a future that is not so hard to imagine, as we enter the post-antibiotic era.

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Space Wars Make No Sense

We already see with a galactic eye an empty cosmos, pulsating stars, and a near-endless supply of rocks in space with every imaginable combination of elements, and a few unimaginable ones, no doubt. Imagine the ability to make the Kessel Run in 14 Parsecs, to step into an abandoned hunk of junk and boost it in a matter of minutes to get from the junkyard desert of Jakku to the iridescent green of Takodana. In this place and time, space combat makes no sense.

Why send a squadron of X-Wings to hit one part of one world when a squadron of automated bombs can pound into it at lightspeed? Why not just shoot large chunks of matter at lightspeed to crash into things? There is enough lightspeed capable junk lying about the place, after all. There are advanced AI units and various elaborate computers. What is so different between automated attack droids, which are archaic in that universe, and automated suicide hyperspeed bombs?

Imagine, again, the power to just fly away. Why stay and fight anyone, at all? Fly on to the next galaxy, the next green world. Just fly on and build colonies where there can be a new way of life. What purpose such efforts to contain and control into an empire? What does power gain in such an economy except more power? To what end? There was an episode derided for the dullness of a trade dispute, but it was the only motivation for war that made any sense, at all, on the scale of a galaxy. The planet is locked down, locked away. Of course, what matter that? There were plenty of farms, plenty of fields, and oceans deep and country wide. Let them blockade all the universe away, and remain on the ground a people of peace and plenty. How would anyone even know they were blockaded outside of the major metropolises? Much easier and safer to stay on the surface of the world, working and living and looking up at the stars as if a flat screen. Few would be bothered by the loss of the depths in sky, just as few in England will even know what has been lost, since it can’t be measured on an individual scale.

There will just be that sense of loss, like an empty obverse of nostalgia, a future-nostalgic-feeling for what could have been.

Let them control. Why not? What could they do with it? Build an army of clones? A single line of custom virus would wipe it out. Build an army of robots? Again, a single line of custom virus would wipe it out. Would they conquer the sky? Drones are cheap and easy to build in such a universe, and kamikazi machines would require no great army to weaponize at the scale to destroy all ships. What need for sabres of light when hyperspeed stones smash through the walls and shields? Why build a single death star to destroy a world, or a star-killer base, when a seres of large stones pushed down hard enough would do the job, as well. Anyone with a junkyard at their disposal has the technology to do the same. A single CrispR machine, a single microbiotic technician, can end the war. A single hacker can pop open every airlock in a gesture. Armies are only as good as their weakest entrypoint, inside their giant metal shells. Space, itself, and biology are more dangerous than any laser beam.

And, all the things that make for war – resource scarcity, ideological purification, etc. – do not exist on the scale of a galaxy. Just fly away from anyone who disagrees to a new green world. Any hunk of junk can get you there, apparently.

War in space just doesn’t make sense. Imagining combat on that scale has never been done well on screen.

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Villains Make No Sense

One of the great lies of the illegal drug trade is that engaging in the activity can lead to financial rewards. In fact, minimum wage would be a step up from the wages of an average drug dealer. It is much easier to make a living legally than to make a living illegally.

I recently watched the first Michael Bey Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, and it was not a great film. It was terrible, in fact, in the way a big budget, glossy nostalgia CGI spectacle is inevitably terrible. Only occasionally did the film so much as rise, very briefly, to a near-mediocrity that quickly collapsed upon any momentary thought to the course of events on screen. The most glaring, in my mind, moment of total failure came from the motivation of one of the villains. He simply made no sense. Supposedly, he was a brilliant scientist and businessman, head of a powerful corporation and a leader in lucrative biotech. The company owned buildings in Manhattan – no small feat for anyone in that market. He owned a very flash mansion in upstate New York, in the Catskills, with beautiful views of the mountainside. What use, then, villainy? He already has everything. The wicked demon pulling his strings behind the flash, a.k.a. Shredder, offers some promise of wealth beyond wildest imaginings after constructing an apocalyptic bio-attack on New York City. Isn’t it easier just to engage in hostile takeovers of other companies, and gut them for parts? Isn’t it easier to kick all the wealth currently earned into an Index fund and let the stable world generate all the revenue an evil asshole needs to punch his manservants for a lifetime? What use all the extra wealth? His motivation made no sense. He sought power, but he had it. He sought wealth, but he had it. Shredder’s free-floating evil menace makes no sense, either. What use do immortal samurai of doom have for destroying whole cities? One would imagine a low-profile and careful reinvestment of dividends would be more useful to securing a lasting future than engaging in swordfights with rogue turtles.

Villains make no sense.

Austin Powers spoofed this, of course, when Dr. Evil asked for one million dollars. World leaders, laughing, asked if he took a check. Then a billion, still no biggie. Let me just call our secretary…

Money is not a useful tool for a powerful overlord, when they already have money. Power, I could believe, for a while, but to what purpose? What is the reason that Vladimir Putin maintains such tight control over his fascist state? He sees himself as a patriot, the true leader of the people, and the proper one. He sees himself as a man of honor. Vanity is his motivation. Fear that his people and way of life will stumble, perhaps. Money is just a bonus on the side. It isn’t even the point. In fact, one can easily imagine the man staring at a black ceiling at night, eyes wide open, wondering what the hell he is doing, what it was all for, and how much longer he can keep fooling everyone into believing he is their rightful leader.

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The Role of the Creator

There is nothing more stupid and useless than another blog post somewhere in the noise of the million machine march towards justice after the needless and devastating attack in Orlando that left so many fine young men and women wounded or dead. There is little doubt,  at this point, that the attack specifically targeted a popular gay nightclub. It is hard for  straight person to understand the importance of the gay bar or gay club to the community. In a world where unwanted advances can lead to countless unspeakable consequences, the gay bar is a place where people who live in masks can break free, speak openly about what their hearts want, and who their hearts want. It is a rite of passage. Some of the parents of the dead young men did not know their sons were gay or bi until the news came that their son was killed for their gender identity and orientation.

So, there’s very little to say about this horrific tragedy. Legiaslators ought to do something, but after Newtown, it is hard to imagine the gridlock breaking for a sinners and sodomites when the innocents were gunned down mercilessly and nothing was done. How much blood is enough? Whose blood must be spilled before the change comes?

I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I only want to know what I can do to end the hate. I can vote in a red state, but there’s very little to vote on here except more guns, so good guys with guns can put bullets in the air in a crowded club, where light and dark and shadow flood the room, and no one knows who the bad guy is, except there’s guns and more guns. So vote, but expect nothing to come from it. The children who died in Connecticut screaming and afraid were a price we were willing to have paid.

As creators of media, literary and movie scripts and songs and comic strips, we have the power to build up hope against the hate that comes with guns and lynching ropes. We can speak about the joy that comes for our nation’s sons when they step out without fear into a room full of people who are like them, queer. There is so much joy in this world when we’re together, so don’t forget to write the queer and the transgender. Write them as kings and heroes and strong, young men. Place them in every future and call them out as friends. We as creators can stamp out hate through representation of people who are great, and don’t hate. No cannon fodder, or pathos-rich slaughter, make sure the characters are people, everyday sort of sons and daughters. The power of the pen is the voice in the mind, the language of dreams and aspirations. As creators, we must do better to teach the world not to hate who is different. We must write so the world can learn.

Goddamn, Orlando, it’s hard to think about anything when that’s what happened.

Stay safe, out there. Be kind. Don’t die.

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Suburban Cults of Wealth and Christianity

One thing that everyone ought to know by now about the suburbs is that they are generally quite lonely for grown-ups, and children. Insulation against all the dangers of the city pushes up against one of the harsh realities of rural life: one must drive a long distance to do anything fun, or to be part of any sort of scene or event. One does not casually drive forty minutes across town on a whim, generally. One most likely spends the evening at home with family, if there is family, watching the internet/television, cleaning and eating and far away from others. The neighbors rarely become so close that they are welcome inside the garage, much less the house. In the three years I have lived here, I can count on one hand the number of times my neighbors have walked into my living room. It isn’t a plot or a scheme or anything, just that the suburbs is not a communal experience for most people. We bowl alone.

The two activities that seem to unite the community are lawn maintenance to keep up appearances, and religious services of some sort. I do attend services when I feel the urge, and consider my practice a private matter. But, that’s not really the kind of religion that is popular around me. The kind of religion I experience, even in the stoic and elder faiths, tends towards the revival. The church is considered one’s “church home” and an important part of social and civic life. Children are normalized there, and taught right from wrong among their peers. The community prays together towards an afterlife that is hopefully as idyllic as the perfect hedges and long-blooming crepe myrtles.

The specific style of church that seems most prevalent in the community is the kind of church that does not shame the wealthy, and gets all up in people’s business, as the saying goes, and seems to resemble the sort of religion that takes over a life, demanding a total change of self and ideology that surrenders control of the inner life and parts of the outer life over to a communal identity that curtails the traditional bonds of family, creates hard edges around the community of the church, where those that are outside of it are eternally outside, and bless your heart and we’ll pray for you.

The connection between the hard religious right wing and the loneliness of our suburbs seems important, to me. The loneliness of the community drives us into churches, seeking fellowship and hope and a sense of purpose. We are told what to believe, and there is no opposing viewpoints in the room or in the neighborhood to stand contrary, most of the time.  The city has created a region ripe for exploitation and called it an ideal for everyone, with huge rooms, and expansive lawns, all spread out. Loneliness sets in. Religion fills the gap, and a particular kind of religion that draws lines around the houses, the community, the ones who fit in to that world of wealth and hard work and home and lawn maintenance.

Now the district maps are drawn, and these communities that are set apart and united in their apartness become a single congressman. A majority is built out of gerrymanders, all crawling over the communities that are ripe for the religious right wing to rise.

End the suburbs, save America? Probably nothing that drastic. But, the disease that leads to so much evangelical right wing hate is probably loneliness, and the burbs are the place where loneliness thrives. If we can just find a way so people won’t be so lonely, and so driven to be a powerful tribe against the loneliness and the fear of death…

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Fascism is Good for Business

Smart people are calling presumptive Republican nominee, Donald J. Drumpf, an aspiring fascist. His tendency to authoritarian government is a learned trait, if stories of his father are true. The things that make him a terrible candidate for political leadership are also traits that the business world often respect and admire. A plastic morality is ideal when the only measure of success is profit. A CEO is often only indistinguishable from a fascist dictator by the fortunate reality that getting fired from a company does not immediately mean being killed, and any torture that occurs will be psychological, not directly physical. A CEO is rewarded for treating workers like disposable cogs, called tough by the business community. A CEO is rewarded for driving down expenses even if it means workers don’t earn a living wage, or parts are imported from slave-labor facilities in miserable places of the planet.

We criticize Trump for his sexism, his rudeness, his inhumanity to man. We do not see it as a critique of the place he learned it. Inside the halls of business power, all of these traits are common and often celebrated in powerful men. People inside the company will celebrate Trump’s leadership, when the very style of leadership he utilizes is a fascist dictator state, where one man’s word rules everything, demands everything. And, more importantly, in the world of business, this kind of fascist dictator leadership is celebrated and common. Trump learned his authoritarianism from his community.

We have all been workers before at companies. We know what it is like to have to give lip-service to leadership, keep our face smiling, and be careful what we say about the things going on at the workplace. The best companies I worked for where places where the CEO was a benevolent one, quick to think about ethics and the weight of power. The very best company I worked for had a female CEO, at a very advanced age, who was as kind as a grandmother even as we knew there was no messing around with her resources or her commands. Even in the very best circumstances, and she was the very best of people to work for, a wonderful human in every way, it was clear that the employee was not the powerful one; there is no democracy in business. The owners of resources are the commanders of them, and the top of the heap in life.

In living memory, business leaders have not made good presidents. Bush II, the first president with an MBA, by any measure of a presidency, was not an effective leader of the country. Actor turned politician Ronald Reagan remains a contentious figure, but seems to be responsible for one of the greatest lies in modern economics, that cripples the powerless to this day, the idea of Trickle-Down Economics.

We talk about the problem of Trump, but we have a society that is trained to glorify authoritarians. Anyone who is a “true believer” at work, so to speak, is ripe to become the one who votes for fascism.

The unions are gone, mostly. Even the ones that remain are undermined and destroyed, and are notorious for corruption. The world of business authoritarianism is seeping into the cracks and crevices of society. It will come again, if we do not change the culture of business, even if Trump loses.

Everyone in America, nearly, must work in a company, and be a company person. How do we change the culture of leadership in companies to stop rewarding fascist dictators?

It’s a hard question, with no good answers. In the mean time, I’m looking for another benevolent dictatorship, looking around the companies I visit for signs the employee smiles aren’t genuine, and the presence of the boss isn’t simultaneous with fear.

Though I believe we will end up in a dictatorship eventually, if the system of Capitalism is not reformed towards social justice, the number of decent people who are good authoritarian figures to their employees – even the ones they don’t personally like – gives me some hope that there will be good ones as often as there are bad ones. People have lived under dictatorships for thousands of years, and most of the people were happy with it, just like most of us like our jobs.

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The Ignorant, the Innocent, the Saintly Men; or a review of Haldor Laxness’ Paradise Reclaimed

Iceland is as far away from my subtropical sweltering humidity and heat as the other side of the moon. I have been to Germany, though, and stayed there quite a while on more than one occasion. I remember in winter, around January, everything was so dark and wet and cold. The whole community huddled together over coffee, over warm food, stamping their feet in the walkways. Businesses hung drapes around the front door to keep the blast of cold from getting in whenever the customers entered. It was a makeshift entryway that worked fairly well to preserve the hot, close air in all the shops and restaurants. People wore good shoes, trekked over ice patches in them. When the sun finally broke in early spring, people would go to parks and sit for long stretches in the grass, looking up into the blue with all their friends around them.

In Laxness’ Iceland, it is the nineteenth century, and the weather is even more extreme across the country that is even farther north from where I was in temperate southern Germany. The nights in winter are long and dark and the countryside offers no amusements, no pleasures or luxuries. When the dark time comes, people rush to get everything done that is possible during the brief hours of light, then they hunker down to bed with little oil to light their lamps, and no singing or dancing or laughter. There is just darkness, and waiting for the end of darkness. There is a winter, and there is spring, and the waiting for spring in winter. The beautiful translation, I hope, of the novel of the innocents of that life, out in the country, I hope, is true to the original language of the book.

The farmer at the heart of the little novel, with his daughter, form a core of innocence that verges on foolishness. They are painted with broad strokes, and can occasionally be hard to read as they border on the inhuman. But, innocence is inhuman. It is beaten out of us all. Certainly, the poor daughter of the farmer, craftsman, and bricklayer convert to the Mormon religion, is beaten down by life for her innocence.

The novel begins with a horse too fine for Iceland, a horse worthy of kings. It is a fairy horse, believed to be descended of Selkies by the farmer’s children. This beautiful horse cannot be bought or sold. It can only be given to a visiting foreign king. Steiner, the farmer, seems to do everything with a purpose and direction of a pre-ordained to heaven out of protestant theology. He is a force of nature, whose great mistakes are tied only to his failure to recognize that other great men do not uphold his high standards of behavior. Local officials are a plague of corrupt locusts. One of them takes advantage of friendship and the absent husband to decimate the farm’s pastures in autumn with far too many horses. His daughter is probably raped, impregnated with an illegitimate child that throws her life into a mess.

He doesn’t even know. The only other man that was worthy of Steiner’s admiration for a good, long time is a Mormon Missionary and polygamist from Utah. Steiner goes to Utah, then, becomes Mormon, and a bricklayer, and presents a fascinating portrayal of early Salt Lake City, after the community established but before the federal government came for the polygamists. It is a Utopian vision, and appeals to the perfection reflected in Steiner’s gaze to the mountainous hills. It is very hard to write compelling saintly men, walking the line between ignorance and innocence, but Laxness is a master and the tale he tells is compelling and strange to me, sitting on a bench below a lemon tree, and looking up into the same blue sky that hangs over Iceland, and Utah, and all the paradises of this world.

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