Archive for November, 2011
As an English major, with a particular interest in British literature, no less, it’s peculiar to me that I did not come across the fascinating novel, “Erewhon” by Samuel Butler, in my studies. Perhaps because of my personal religious inclinations at the time and my particular college of choice, Clemson, works that were critical of religion were, purposefully or not, conspicuously absent from most course syllabi.
In any case, my particular copy came from a friend who thought I might find it to be an interesting read. And indeed I have. To briefly outline the premise, the British protagonist and traveler, Higgs, is working along one portion of an island. The book doesn’t say precisely where, but the notes indicate that Butler was writing from his experiences while in New Zealand. Higgs subsequently decides to trek inland with another character named Chowbok to find a suitable place in which he can raise sheep for profit on his own. Butler was a sheep farmer in New Zealand from 1860-64. Further inland, Higgs, whose companion eventually abandoned him on the trip, finds a civilization called “Erewhon,” the people of which, he later learns, have a decided distaste for machines, sick people and reason, among other things.
In one town, called the City of the Colleges of Unreason, the protagonist comes across college professors that specialize in subjects such as inconsistency, evasion and worldly wisdom and societies such as the “Suppression of Useless Knowledge” and the “Completer Obliteration of the Past.”
In the book, the reader learns of all sorts of practices and strains of thought that are wildly foreign to even 19th century ears, much less 21st century ones. For instance, human conception is really an incarnation from a pre-existence. In these pre-existence, the people, in their pre-forms, are really in some kind of ghostly, ethereal state, and to get into the tangible world, that is, to be conceived inside a mother that is actually not of their own choosing, they have to sign a document waiving their right to choose and confirming that they agree to be conceived. They don’t get to choose what kind of family, poor or rich, into which they are born. Further, Erewhon’s inhabitants have come to believe that technology, and particularly in the form of “The Machines,” is dangerous to the survival of humanity because they feel that the machines could eventually eclipse humans in intelligence. This idea, of course, is quite ahead of its time since it’s really Butler who is writing it some 70 years or so before the first computer was ever actually invented.
The two most important sections of “Erewhon” in my view are the chapters titled, “The Musical Banks” and the three-part, “The Book of the Machines.”
The Musical Banks chapter is a criticism of religious hypocrisy and the almost insatiable desire of the faithful to raise money for the church (God, if he wanted churches to have paid employees and various programs, could he not provide for them outright without making their members pick up the tab with the notorious 10 percent business?). The Wikipedia entry on the book claims the chapter is partially about the ancient practice of “coinage,” but this may be too complicated an interpretation. Butler seems to simply be comparing churches to banks in their capacity and ability to collect and store money. The images of pagan gods on the Erewhonian money also alludes to the tie between the church and pecuniary interests.
Here is Butler’s rather biting conclusion of the Musical Banks chapter:
The saving feature of the Erewhonian Musical Bank system … was that while it bore witness to the existence of a kingdom that is not of this world, it made no attempt to pierce the veil that hides it from human eyes. It is here that almost all religions go wrong. Their priests try to make us believe that they know more about the unseen world than those whose eyes are still blinded by the seen, can ever know—forgetting that while to deny the existence of an unseen kingdom is bad, to pretend that we know more about it than its bare existence is no better. …
So far as I could see, fully ninety per cent. of the population of the metropolis looked upon these banks with something not far removed from contempt. If this is so, any such startling event as is sure to arise sooner or later, may serve as nucleus to a new order of things that will be more in harmony with both the heads and hearts of the people.
The chapter titled, “The Book of the Machines,” outlines why the Erewhon people have come to mistrust machines and why they have, for the most part, done away with them in their society. As Higgs notes, all traces of machines (watches, for instance) have been stored away and are never used. Indeed, Higgs was heavily frowned upon and made to turn over his watch when he entered their city.
In a passage that eerily foresees the 2004 film, I Robot, the Isaac Asimov short stories from the mid-1950s, as well as the greatly diminished physical size of modern computer CPU chips, readers learn of the concern Erewhonians have for the evolution by which they fear machines may morph into something more than they are at the present:
The largest of them will probably greatly diminish in size. Some of the lowest vertebrate attained a much greater bulk than has descended to their more highly organised living representatives, and in like manner a diminution in the size of machines has often attended their development and progress. …
“But returning to the argument, I would repeat that I fear none of the existing machines; what I fear is the extraordinary rapidity with which they are becoming something very different to what they are at present. No class of beings have in any time past made so rapid a movement forward. Should not that movement be jealously watched, and checked while we can still check it? And is it not necessary for this end to destroy the more advanced of the machines which are in use at present, though it is admitted that they are in themselves harmless?
“As yet the machines receive their impressions through the agency of man’s senses: one travelling machine calls to another in a shrill accent of alarm and the other instantly retires; but it is through the ears of the driver that the voice of the one has acted upon the other. Had there been no driver, the callee would have been deaf to the caller. There was a time when it must have seemed highly improbable that machines should learn to make their wants known by sound, even through the ears of man; may we not conceive, then, that a day will come when those ears will be no longer needed, and the hearing will be done by the delicacy of the machine’s own construction?—when its language shall have been developed from the cry of animals to a speech as intricate as our own? …
Some people may say that man’s moral influence will suffice to rule them; but I cannot think it will ever be safe to repose much trust in the moral sense of any machine.
“Again, might not the glory of the machines consist in their being without this same boasted gift of language? ‘Silence,’ it has been said by one writer, ‘is a virtue which renders us agreeable to our fellow-creatures.’”
The title of the book is an anagram for the word “nowhere,” and quite possibly, while Erewhon the place may be modeled after New Zealand, we can probably think of it in literary as a hypothetical space and not intended to represent any specific region, other than a remote spot where a civilization of people have developed a unique set of beliefs. Through these people’s thoughts and actions, we get a better understanding of what happens when religion plays the trump card and human morality takes a wrong turn. For instance, in Erewhon, sick people are treated as criminals, often dying while attempting to carry out their harsh sentences, while actual criminals are seemingly coddled and given a form of “therapy” to help them recover from their “immoral” state.
As if the satire was not laid on heavy enough while Higgs was actually in Erewhon, once he gets back to England, Higgs begins planning a way to attempt to ship a number of Erewhonians back to Europe, put them to work in a moneymaking venture, complete with shareholders, and convert them to Christianity:
By the time the emigrants got too old for work they could then by shipped back to Erewhon and carry the good seed with them.
I can see no hitch nor difficulty about the matter, and trust that this book will sufficiently advertise the scheme to insure the subscription of the necessary capital; as soon as this is forthcoming I will guarantee that I convert the Erewhonians not only into good Christians but into a source of considerable profit to the shareholders.
All things considered, then, the entire text of the book is basically a business proposal that includes some proselytizing ruminations, and hidden behind the plot is Butler’s own cunning way of dicing up elements of Victorian life with the satirical knife edge.
I hinted at this in my last post, and The New York Times’ Paul Krugman made note of it in his recent column, that the Occupy Wall Street crowd and the 99 percenters are actually shooting too low in their criticisms of the rich. The income of the top 0.1 percent of the working population rose 400 percent between 1979-2005, according to an earlier report from the Congressional Budget Office (adjusted for inflation), while the same statistic increased only 21 percent for those in the middle income bracket, and I suggested in the previous post that the top 0.01 percentage also make up a significant percentage of the income share. The recent report from the CBO didn’t look at income brackets higher than the top 1 percent.
Krugman elucidates the basic gravamen of the disgruntled poor and middle class against the super rich and why the latter contribute little, other than capital gains taxes, to the public coffers or to the economic well-being of the nation:
Given this history, why do Republicans advocate further tax cuts for the very rich even as they warn about deficits and demand drastic cuts in social insurance programs?
Well, aside from shouts of “class warfare!” whenever such questions are raised, the usual answer is that the super-elite are “job creators” — that is, that they make a special contribution to the economy. So what you need to know is that this is bad economics. In fact, it would be bad economics even if America had the idealized, perfect market economy of conservative fantasies.
After all, in an idealized market economy each worker would be paid exactly what he or she contributes to the economy by choosing to work, no more and no less. And this would be equally true for workers making $30,000 a year and executives making $30 million a year. There would be no reason to consider the contributions of the $30 million folks as deserving of special treatment.
But, you say, the rich pay taxes! Indeed, they do. And they could — and should, from the point of view of the 99.9 percent — be paying substantially more in taxes, not offered even more tax breaks, despite the alleged budget crisis, because of the wonderful things they supposedly do.
Still, don’t some of the very rich get that way by producing innovations that are worth far more to the world than the income they receive? Sure, but if you look at who really makes up the 0.1 percent, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, by and large, the members of the super-elite are overpaid, not underpaid, for what they do.
For who are the 0.1 percent? Very few of them are Steve Jobs-type innovators; most of them are corporate bigwigs and financial wheeler-dealers. One recent analysis found that 43 percent of the super-elite are executives at nonfinancial companies, 18 percent are in finance and another 12 percent are lawyers or in real estate. And these are not, to put it mildly, professions in which there is a clear relationship between someone’s income and his economic contribution.
The following video highlights the wealth distribution in the U.S. The top 0.01 of the income bracket is bringing in 5 percent of the total share of income in the nation at an average rate of $27.3 million, while the top 0.1 percent of taxpayers accounts for 5.3 of the income at a little more than $3.2 million on average. Of course, I don’t believe this graphic accounts for corporations. As you can see, once you get to the notorious Top 1 percent crowd that has been much criticized by folks identifying with the Occupy movement, the disparity drastically jumps. The actual 1 percent of income makers number about 1.5 million, while the next gradation leaps to 7.5 million units at an average pay of $211,000 per year and still far more than that of most Americans. As per the latest estimate, the U.S. has a population of 312,659,914 people. Add those percentages up, and you will find that the top 1 percent hold 20.9 of the wealth.
Props to TheMattBallardShow for creating this hilarious video about how Jesus might feel, if he existed, about folks’ attempts to predict the end of time when, if Camping and others knew their Bible, they would keep their mouths shut sense it clearly says that Jesus will come like a thief in the night, and no one, not even wonder boy himself, will know the time or the place. (Again, all that is assuming that the Bible is true, which I don’t.)
Here’s the video:
I am apparently not alone in the weariness over Tim Tebow’s Jesus talk in every single interview following a win on the football field. News flash: if Jesus existed, he probably doesn’t care about football or any person’s success in their careers.
Jake Plummer had this to say on XTRA Sports 910 on Monday in Phoenix:
Tebow, regardless of whether I wish he’d just shut up after a game and go hug his teammates, I think he’s a winner, and I respect that about him. …
I think that when he accepts the fact that we know that he loves Jesus Christ then I think I’ll like him a little better. …
I don’t hate him because of that. I just would rather not have to hear that every single time he takes a good snap or makes a good handoff.
Here is Tebow’s response:
If you’re married, and you have a wife, and you really love your wife, is it good enough to only say to your wife ‘I love her’ the day you get married? Or should you tell her every single day when you wake up and every opportunity?
And that’s how I feel about my relationship with Jesus Christ is that it is the most important thing in my life. So any time I get an opportunity to tell him that I love him or given an opportunity to shout him out on national TV, I’m gonna take that opportunity. And so I look at it as a relationship that I have with him that I want to give him the honor and glory anytime I have the opportunity. And then right after I give him the honor and glory, I always try to give my teammates the honor and glory.
And that’s how it works because Christ comes first in my life, and then my family, and then my teammates. I respect Jake’s opinion, and I really appreciate his compliment of calling me a winner. But I feel like anytime I get the opportunity to give the Lord some praise, he is due for it.
Yes, he’s married to Christ. We get it. But other athletes don’t tend to thank their wives and kids during postgame interviews. In fact, I have rarely, if ever, heard a player thank their wives for helping them win games. The other players on the team help a person win a game, not Christ or anyone else real or imagery who is not on the field. If it weren’t for the wins the Broncos have had recently (and as a Denver fan, I’m certainly pleased), I would be a little resentful as one of his teammates to hear him thanking Christ first and foremost, when the score would have been 75-0 (or worse) without his teammates. I dare say if the rest of his teammates sucked the whole game, Christ would have still been a no-show.
One day, he’s speaking out in support of repealing child labor laws, which would seemingly set the nation back at least 50 years, and the next in support of giving amnesty for illegal immigrants who have been in the country for decades, saying:
I’m prepared to take the heat to say let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship, but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.
during the GOP debate tonight.
I obviously agree with him about not breaking up families, but I’m against breaking up families in any situation, no matter how long a person has been illegally in the country.
The failure of the deficit reduction panel this week proves that we have few, if any, true leaders in Washington. The obvious bulging expenditure in the national budget is the military, but apparently that is the sacred cow, so no matter how far the national debt sinks, and the economy, that is untouchable.
Rosanne Altshuler an economist with Rutgers University and a former member of George W. Bush’s tax reform panel, seems to have said it best:
There could be a bit of a silver lining. It forces us to come to terms with cuts in areas that have been difficult to touch — the military and Medicare. We may not like how the cuts are going to be done, but we better start dealing with the fact that cuts are going to have to be made.
That’s the kind of honest assessments that we need if the nation is going to balance the budget any time soon. Some departments that do not contribute to human well-being (Not education or health care, for example) should be cut.
The Mars rover, Curiosity, which has taken close to 10 years to plan and construct, is set to launch out of our atmosphere on Saturday from Cape Canaveral, Fla., with the main objective of determining whether Mars can, or once did, support microbial life, not to find life itself. That loftier objective would be for another mission, scientists say. As Doug McCuistion, head of NASA’s Mars exploration program, put it:
We bridge the gap from ‘follow the water’ to seeking the signs of life.
See here for more information.
I had never heard of it before today, but apparently one parent is not enthused about some of the lyrics in a song called the “Twelve Days After Christmas,” which is supposed to be a spoof on the actual tune. A mother in Michigan has excused her daughter from having to sing the song in her middle school choir:
Here are some of the offending lyrics:
The first day after Christmas my true love and I had a fight,
And so I chopped the pear tree down and burned it just for spite.
Then with a single cartridge, I shot that blasted partridge,
My true love, my true love, my true love gave to me.
The second day after Christmas, I pulled on the old rubber gloves,
And very gently wrung the necks of both the turtle doves.
And a video of a high schools choir singing it:
The “very gently” part in the last sentence sounds is a bit chilling. Meh. I’ll stick with the original.
Not that Clinton. Or that one.
Yup. Chelsea. And journalists why the public mistrusts the media, and why journalists themselves are disillusioned about the business. Two commentators in this video rightly called this move “cynical.”