The Lorraine

Welcome to day 14 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my 2006 train trip through New Orleans, Memphis, and Minneapolis. Today, 53 years after Martin Luther King, Jr., received the Nobel Peace Prize on 14 Oct. 1964 for his work combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance, I want to focus on one motel in Memphis, the Lorraine Motel, where King was shot and killed in April 1968.

But first, a few things King said in the 1950s and 60s that are just as relevant today as then.

“It’s not only necessary to know how to go about loving your enemies, but also to go down into the question of why we should love our enemies. I think the first reason that we should love our enemies, and I think this was at the very center of Jesus’ thinking, is this: that hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil.” — 17 November 1957, “Loving Your Enemies,” sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL

 “There’s another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. We usually think of what hate does for the individual hated or the individuals hated or the groups hated. But it is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates. … For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does.” — 17 November 1957, “Loving Your Enemies,” sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL

“For nonviolence not only calls upon its adherents to avoid external physical violence, but it calls upon them to avoid internal violence of spirit. It calls on them to engage in that something called love. And I know it is difficult sometimes. When I say ‘love’ at this point, I’m not talking about an affectionate emotion. It’s nonsense to urge people, oppressed people, to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense. I’m talking about something much deeper. I’m talking about a sort of understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men.” — speech at the Great March on Detroit, 23 June 1963, Detroit, MI

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” — “Beyond Vietnam,” 4 April 1967, New York, N.Y.


The Lorraine Motel from a block away, Nov. 2006

In 1945, Walter and Loree Bailey bought the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis (before that, it was operated since the 1920s as the Windsor Hotel and the Marquette Hotel) and transformed it from a whites-only establishment to an upscale motel welcoming both blacks and whites in the Jim Crow era. Among guests were Ray Charles, Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, and Nat King Cole.

King himself visited numerous times, including the spring of 1968, when he and Dr. Ralph Abernathy were in town to help lead sanitation workers in a protest against low wages and poor working conditions (timeline of strike). Jesse Jackson was also with the group.

King gave a speech on 3 April at the world headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, the Mason Temple, in which he told them,

“I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you.” 

bookstore for the Church of God in Christ, a few blocks from the Lorraine Motel (Nov. 2006)


The next day, 4 April, King was shot in the neck walking back into his motel room (room 306) from the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where he had asked a saxophonist to play “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at the rally that night.

The motel’s co-owner, Loree Bailey, operating the motel switchboard, “suffered a stroke when she heard the shot fired. She died on April 9th, the same day as King’s funeral.”

Walter Bailey continued to run the motel after King’s death but instead of renting out room 306 again, he turned it into a memorial, until 1982, when he “declared bankruptcy and stood by helplessly as his high-end establishment became a brothel. The Lorraine would have been sold at auction, but the Save the Lorraine organization bought it and decided to transform it into a museum.” After the final tenant, “Jacqueline Smith, who had resided there as a housekeeper since 1973, refused to leave and was forcibly evicted,” the motel closed in March 1988 and the National Civil Rights Museum was dedicated in the summer of 1991.

The sign for the motel, Nov. 2006: Wounded in America: Stories of Gun Violence
How the Lorraine Motel (National Civil Rights Museum) looked in Nov. 2006; it later underwent renovations (2012 to 2014). The two cars are a white 1959 Dodge Royal with lime green fins and a white 1968 Cadillac.


James Earl Ray was arrested, pleaded guilty, and was convicted of killing King; Ray was sentenced to 99 years in prison, and died in prison in 1998 from hepatitis.

In 1999, the King family brought a wrongful death case against Loyd Jowers, owner of Jim’s Grill, a restaurant near the Lorraine, and “other unknown co-conspirators” for King’s murder. After four weeks of testimony, with more than 70 witnesses, a Memphis jury unanimously found for the family, i.e., “that Jowers was part of a conspiracy to kill King, and that the assassination plot also involved ‘others, including governmental agencies.'” Coretta Scott King named some of those others as “the Mafia, local, state and federal government agencies. Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department (under Janet Reno) had ordered a new investigation in August 1998 and its findings in June 2000 refuted allegations that there was any conspiracy to assassinate King, “including the findings of the Memphis civil court jury.”

Only a little more than 6 years after King was shot, his mother, Alberta Williams King, “was shot and killed as she sat at the organ in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta” one Sunday (30 June 1974), by Marcus Wayne Chenault, a 23-year-old black man from Ohio who said he shot her because “all Christians are my enemies.” 


I noticed a woman protesting the museum when I was there. That woman is Jacqueline Smith, the same housekeeper who was evicted in March 1988; she has been there protesting ever since (at least until 20 Aug. 2016, the last mention I found online), because she feels that the National Civil Rights Museum “worships” King’s death rather than celebrating his life. She also opposes the way that “King’s legacy in Memphis is tangled up with gentrification. She points out that many blacks can’t afford to live around the Lorraine Motel.” And she objects to the commercialisation of King’s life and death; one of her slogans says “Dr. King came to Memphis to support the poor, needy and oppressed; not to buy worthless junk.”

You can see one of her signs below, in my photo (Nov. 2006).


I didn’t know about this controversy ahead of time and was confused when I saw Smith protesting the museum. I thought that she and her protest were the main attractions, and though I knew King had been shot there, which is why I was visiting the motel, I didn’t realise there was a museum on the site.  I wish I had and that I had looked through the plexiglass into the room where King was staying. That will have to wait for another trip to Memphis.


“We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: ‘Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.’ … We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.” — “Beyond Vietnam,” 4 April 1967, New York, N.Y.



A bit of dread that finds your borrowed bed

Welcome to day 6 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.

A friend — Jack, a college acquaintance, now friends on Facebook — asked me yesterday why I’m interested in heterotopias. He asked, I saw the question, then I went out with a few friends for a goodbye lunch for one of us (not me), where those friends asked me, What exactly is a heterotopia?


I gave my short spiel, then walked to the hair stylist, who, while she cut my hair, asked, What is that first word, that “h” word, heterotopia, what does it mean? I said I would send her the little piece I wrote, Heterotopias and Liminal Spaces. But meanwhile, Jack’s question stirred my mind: Why?


I had been looking earlier at an interesting and beautiful-in-its-way Tumblr page called Motel Register. The page’s writers seem to have a nightmarish view of motels; many of the images are dystopian, creepy, ominous, grim. Some are sort of bleakly glamourous, like this one:

CapriMotelMotelRegisterbleakglamourour(Above, not my photo)

A recent entry that caught my attention was the one on Crossroads, i.e., motels with that name, as well as the idea that motels are a crossroads, which is heterotopian:

“Crossroads. This is the ur motel marker. Traced back to its German roots, this two-letter prefix means ‘out of’ and ‘original’ all at once, just like a motel room promises adventure and solitude in the figure of the frontier. America in a nutshell.

“To be in a motel is to be at the crossroads — of adventure, the workaday grind, criminality, and life in general. Anything could happen here. And you could take one road or the other out of the parking lot. The choice is always, painfully yours.

“Everything is overdetermined on the road. You cower under the sheets of your adventurous spirit. The company of strangers is the only home you care to know.
If the ultimate promise of travel is self-discovery, the lonely night beside the highway might be the most authentic moment of your life.”

What this no-place place, this crossroads between real and unreal reveals is disillusionment: we are lonely and exist as solitudes, we seek adventure but we are cowards, we are people in pain seeking to escape pain.

There’s this lovely thought, a sort of mockery of nostalgia, about motel phones, on a night when the air conditioner, with its “hum like an airplane’s engines … wheez[es] out a bit of dread that finds your borrowed bed” and after you come back from a trip to the foreign bathroom, a crack in the curtain [which is why I always carry large safety pins] casts a spectral light spotlighting the obligatory telephone:

“Age finds you in an instant.  Frozen like a deer, your mind starts silently punching in your first phone number, still so easy to remember some 30 years later. 481-9371. And like that, you’re at home and so far away all at once.

Motels: They stand in for home, and in doing so remind us, in their bleak emptiness, that we are not home, not at all. Or perhaps they remind us that home, wherever that is, is not any better than this shabby and friendless motel, that “the company of strangers” is the only company — the only family, the only community — that exists anywhere for us.


So I go to lunch with friends (friends I had never met 8 years ago), go to get my hair cut, walk the mile or so home (taking a detour to photograph some butterflies in flowers at a farm stand but end up in love with these grasses in this light),


flip on NPR and listen to more discussion of Kazuo Ishiguro’s being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature today, with the Nobel committee’s comments about his writing: Ishiguro “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” Others (NYT, mainly) write that “[h]is dual identity has made him alert to life’s dislocations; many of his characters are caught, in different ways, between worlds. There is a sense among his men and women that a single wrong move may be calamitous.” (Shades of the mood at the Tumblr site, Motel Register.) They say, “he writes about what you’ve had to forget to survive in the first place, as an individual and as a society.” (From Never Let Me Go: “All children have to be deceived if they are to grow up without trauma.”) Prospect magazine calls him “the master of the quietly unsettling.”

Dislocations; the experience of being caught between worlds; that sharp and inescapable realisation of the abyss that lies black and gaping beneath our abiding hope that we’re connected, that we are solid, permanent, that we are who we think we are, who we appear, known and loved by those we believe we know and love; the necessity of forgetfulness about who we are and what’s been done to us, or what we have done, that enables us to function, and then the remembering, sometimes, that disquiets, quietly unsettles, calls into question everything.

What, I wonder, in our culture reinforces the illusions, tells us the lies that are needed so that we can function as it prefers us to function, helps us forget what we hold inside, distracts us from what’s true, asserts unacknowledged power over our options, our desires, our relationships with each other, with other species, with the earth?  Is it really an illusion, that we are connected to each other, or is the truth that we actually are and don’t see it, don’t feel it, and if so, why not? Why do so many people feel they “don’t belong”? Why are so many resources spent on making houses into homes, far beyond what’s needed in terms of shelter and comfort — the many home box stores, the TV stations, hundreds of magazines, newspaper sections devoted to home decor and desires, decorators, stagers, massive industries and hours of time devoted to the project of creating and recreating the home, over and over?



Today, again on NPR, I heard this interview with a reporter who wrote in the Atlantic magazine about ongoing and deadly fraternity hazings and about the “profound moral unease” that frat members may feel as they cross the line into criminality, certainly into cruelty and obscene carelessness, or they may cover up this sense of unease at the time, may express unconcern and callousness, only to have it seep out later, who knows when, why, and how. Because “there’s this sense that at the core of hazing is a kind of manhood that says, ‘You endure, you shut up, you keep the secrets’ and that’s how you go forward and become a man in this context.” A man doesn’t call for help. A man covers up, hides the significance of what he’s done and how he feels about it from himself, and moves on: “And … they take a breath the next day, the next month, even the rest of their lives, and realize what they’ve been part of ….”

Hiding aspects of who we are from ourselves and everyone else. Profound moral unease.


Because of the new Ken Burns & Lynn Novick series, Vietnam is bubbling in our collective consciousness again. I haven’t seen any of the series, though I was privy to a small discussion about it among people who have seen it, and I’ve listened to some news stories on it (this Maine Calling program on the documentary is particularly affecting); one thing that seems clear is that, like fraternity hazing, it was another circumstance — and a compulsory one for most, unlike fraternities — where young men (primarily) were put in a situation of doing terrible things and then having to bear the psychic consequences of their actions.

Profound moral unease. What do we do with it, as people, as a culture?

Then the news this morning of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the International Campaign To Abolish Nuclear Weapons — as the Nobel committee says, “the spectre of nuclear conflict looms large once more” — and I thought of the existential unease many of us experience, some consciously, some subliminally (that is, below the threshold of sensation, consciousness; affecting our mind without our being aware of it, so that we may deny it).

Unease. Disquiet. Dark thoughts of mortality, morality (acting in a way unaligned with our deepest values), alienation from self and others.

Welcome to the Crossroads Motel!

CrossroadsMotelMotelRegisterTumblr(Above, photo by Joseph Vavak. “Happy Easte”)


So, these are all things that interest me — I assume they interest most people in this culture? — and that are the essence of what heterotopian spaces evoke, I think.

When I am in a motel (as in a cemetery, garden, hospital, museum, on a ship in the middle of the ocean), in that “borrowed bed,” the knowledge that life is a way-station, an unlikely moment between nothingness and nothingness, perhaps, is as pervasive as the peeling wallpaper and the stark, unflinching lights over the bathroom sink.  I am travelling, not only here as a guest in this motel but also, at the speed of light, between birth and death.


And there is that dual sense of possibility, of being anyone, doing anything next, because time is floating and place is layered and who I am is unclear, fragmented, divided. As Motel Register reminds us, “Anything could happen here. And you could take one road or the other out of the parking lot. The choice is always, painfully yours.”


A heterotopia works on us by mixing up layers of life, layers of meaning, layers of time like yesterday, “when I’m old,” my 8th birthday. Normally, I may wake up at 6 or 8 a.m. and do this, then do that, then do this other thing, and then it’s time for dinner, and life goes on in this linear way, though the activities vary, from one moment to the next, and it might make sense to me at times, it holds me together and sets out boundaries. Time and space are defined by known boundaries.

But heterotopias disorder time, they subvert our sense of expectation and of what’s next, and often, by means of their temporal and spacial misalignment with our normal world, they contest, question, or subvert our usual sense of what’s important. Heterotopias stir up unknowing, throw established meaning into question, both our personal perspectives and ways of making meaning and also the significance and meanings assigned to things, events, people, places by others, by the society at large.

If you have been in a space of crisis (serious illness or injury, someone dying, natural disaster, war, abuse, etc.)  you may have felt the way an hour can last 10 hours, or vice versa. The experience of time in such a place, during such an event, intensifies, distorts, feels circular or exponential. And in this disrupted, out-of-the-ordinary place and time, our attitudes, beliefs, relationships, sense of self can suddenly feel provisional, less definite.


More, on a level above the personal, the relationships we observe among our society’s spaces — whose definitions and meanings derive from the prevailing cultural power structure; and in which we may participate willingly or not — can be called into question in heterotopic spaces. Michel Foucault’s (rather grand) claim was that heterotopias are critical to the functioning of the human imaginary (i.e., the deep-seated mode of understanding, the creative and symbolic dimension, through which we create the ways we live together collectively), and that without heterotopias societies will inevitably collapse into authoritarianism. In Foucault’s conception “the heterotopia is simultaneously both part of and apart from the hegemonic arena [i.e., from the power structure of the society]. It is something whose aim is to challenge the dominant culture yet at the same time it is constitutive of that very culture which it opposes and challenges – no culture exists that does not contain heterotopic spaces. So, it is clearly not the case that the heterotopia is seeking to replace the prevailing hegemony.” Yet it is meant to question, challenge, and subvert it, from within. (Much more on this at The Heterotopic Art Institutionat Traces of the Real, by Hugh McCabe, August 2014.)


Fiona Tomkinson, writing about Ishiguro’s novels in her article “Ishiguro and Heidegger: The Worlds of Art” (in Kazuo Ishiguro in a Global Context, 2015), asks “How do the protagonists survive the loss of their illusions and of their world? What is left when a world, floating or otherwise, vanishes ….?”

What may be left, going back to the Tumblr “Motel Register” site, is an authentic moment, perhaps a lonely, disconnected one, perhaps a moment when we come face to face with our cowardice, selfishness, lack of faith, pettiness, terror of the abyss, homesickness, heartache, helplessness, exhaustion. Perhaps a moment when we question what we know, what we believe, what we’ve been taught in our culture and by those who love us. Perhaps a moment when we don’t know anymore who’s bad and who’s good, who to exclude and who to include, who belongs and who doesn’t. Perhaps just a moment when we don’t know and don’t have to know, or one when we don’t rush to unravel a ball of tangled feelings … as we listen to the clanging air conditioner, feel the light from outside the motel room even through closed eyelids, and lie there on our borrowed bed, disillusioned with the promise of the motel room.



Seeking Comfort

I follow conservative libertarian Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog (subtitled “Small Steps Toward A Much Better World”). Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, has now written a book called The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream and is on the interview circuit. This gist of the book (which I have not yet read) is that the U.S. has stopped investing in long-term big ideas and grand projects and is no longer a dynamic society but rather a stagnant one; it’s become complacent, medicating itself against pain, setting up “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” seeking comfort instead of taking risks to improve life. One example: We use technology to separate ourselves, stay indoors, hunker down, and satisfy a need for comfort (Facebook, Netflix) instead of to expand horizons and spur dynamism and productivity (driverless cars that will make sluggish commutes better, high speed rail, an internet of things, smart homes); or as the National Review puts it in their review headline, “When the Pursuit of Happiness Becomes the Flight from Pain:”

“Americans are making deliberate decisions on a mass scale that collectively add up to a culture that is avoiding risk, seeking comfort, and clustering together in like-minded communities.  Americans are less willing to move, to start new companies, or to live or work with people from different socioeconomic classes. We’re clustering with people of like mind, similar income, and the same race. It’s a devastating portrait of a nation that is losing its dynamism in favor of, essentially, ‘digging in.'” (in National Review‘s review)

Another artifact demonstrating a change in attitude: Science fiction written years ago was about how much better it would be in the future; now science fiction writing is mostly dystopian, envisioning a scary, chaotic, dark future.


Cowen spoke this week briefly on NPR’s Morning Edition and at length on WBUR’s “On Point” (and probably elsewhere; those are the two interviews I heard) and I really think he is on-target about how the U.S. has become risk-averse and self-segregated, and how this self-segregation leads to complacency but also surprise at how others think and act:

“[I]f you cease being challenged [by those whose lives are quite different from your own] and you think your way of life is the only way, ultimately that way will become weak, it will be subject to less improvement, you will enter a kind of bubble and continually be surprised by the challenges the outside world keeps on throwing at you. But you’re not very well-equipped intellectually to handle them. … [W]ealthier people tend to live together more than before and so do poorer people. And this is bad for the country as a whole and we see a version of this in the last election where so many people are shocked by the candidate who actually won.”

I wasn’t shocked by Donald Trump’s party nomination nor by his appeal to so many in the general election, partly because I live in a purple state and know and spend time with more than a few Trump supporters.

I’m also aware that support for the federal government has fallen precipitously in the last 50 years, and Trump  — a rich, mouthy businessman with no political experience whatsoever and who rarely spoke his lines from the teleprompter — was the ultimate anti-government, anti-establishment candidate. In 1964, 77% of Americans said that they trusted the government in Washington “to do what is right” all or most of the time.  In 2016, only 19% did. As Tracy McKenzie notes in his essay “Abraham Lincoln on the Rise of Donald Trump” (June 2016), “[p]opular trust began to fall off sharply after the Kennedy-Johnson years, thanks largely to Watergate and Vietnam, and although it has fluctuated sharply from time to time, the overall trend since then has been decidedly downward.”


But the main reason I wasn’t shocked or surprised is that I’ve studied Rene Girard’s work with mimetic theory, his keen understanding of how populism appeals and caters to resentment, and you only have to listen to or read interviews with Trump supporters to get a sense for the high level of resentment they feel. For example, for her book The Politics of Resentment, political science professor Katherine Cramer spent a few months with rural midwestern voters and found that “politics have increasingly become a matter of personal identity. Just about all of her subjects felt a deep sense of bitterness toward elites and city dwellers; just about all of them felt tread on, disrespected and cheated out of what they felt they deserved.” (Cramer’s article about her research in Vox, 16 Nov 2016)

[To be clear, resentment of the party/person in power usually drives us to vote for the “other side,” so we typically bounce from party to party in elections, switching back and forth every 4 or 8 or 12 years. In fact, Kelly Cramer, in her interview with the WaPo, says about liberals now: “One of the very sad aspects of resentment is that it breeds more of itself. Now you have liberals saying, ‘There is no justification for these points of view, and why would I ever show respect for these points of view by spending time and listening to them?’;” in other words, now liberals are resentful of Trump voters and their perspectives. But that said, in this election cycle I think there were deep, long-held, even existential resentments at work, and that they were stoked and played upon by Trump, rather than tamped down with calls for unity and candidate promises to work across the aisle for the good of all, as is usual.]

Cowen, in his interviews this week, mentions a few of the reasons Trump supporters might be resentful, including ongoing job losses and severe wage stagnation over the last 50 years for most men. One could also point to the loss of whole job sectors, such that some skills are no longer useful; the loss of a way of life for many  — some because of policy changes like the closing of coal mines, and some because times change and jobs change with them, which is why there’s not a thriving blacksmith trade these days; the reality that now often both partners/parents in a middle-class family feel they have to work to make ends meet, which leaves little time for a rich family life and which makes them twice as vulnerable to potential job loss; the fact that home prices aren’t rising like they used to and in fact have fallen in some places over the last 10 years, leaving the middle-class, many of whose largest asset is their house, either underwater on the mortgage or unable to move or retire; and the student loan debt burden and difficulty finding jobs that young people are facing, among other factors. (Trump voters offer a number of reasons for voting for him, at Deadspin, 3 Jan 2017.)

Strict economic resentment is not the whole story, though.  Political scientist Roger Petersen points out  that globally, ethnic conflict often stems from “the feeling of injustice on the part of a privileged portion of society when it sees power slipping into the hands of a group that hadn’t previously held it.” Petersen says that “one of the underappreciated causes of ethnic violence was a change in the legal and political status of majority and minority ethnic groups.” But in countries with strong, legitimate governments, the loss of status by a privileged group that could have turned into ethnic conflict and slaughter instead is “channeled into another way of clinging to power and preventing another group from attaining it. Like, say, elections and government policies. ‘Dominance,’ Petersen writes, ‘is sought by shaping the nature of the state rather than through violence.'”


Girard’s work in mimetic theory, and the work of others who have written on the topic, tells us that we, humans, are fundamentally imitators of each other. We imitate each other unconsciously or unknowingly, and also consciously at times (especially when admiring celebrities, e.g.). We share desires among ourselves — desires to have things as well as more abstract but even stronger desires for status and identity — and we can either cooperate towards these desires (this is called love, and is related to a sense of abundance) or we can lock into competition and conflict with other desirers (this is called hatred, resentment, envy, and it’s related to an experience of scarcity).

In the U.S. (and elsewhere) lately, there has been a sense of scarcity — arising from the recession of 2007-2009 and our extremely slow economic recovery, and actually even before that, since the 1970s when income inequality really began to increase — as well as a sense of injustice among those previously privileged in society (i.e., white men at all income levels, 63% of whom who voted for Trump in 2016, and to some extent white women, too, 52% of whom voted for him), who feel their power and privilege slipping as others in society demand more, both of which give rise to a widespread resentment among those who feel they are getting the short end of the stick, that they don’t have a fair chance anymore, that they are being treated unjustly, that life used to be better for them. Those are the people at whom Trump aimed his 1950s-nostalgic, retro campaign message “make America great again.” (Cowen has dubbed him “the placebo president” and sees Trump’s look-backward message — bridges, tunnels, and coal mining, rather than the smart grid, broadband, long-term R&D — with its emphasis on short-term results as a kind of complacency itself.) As Cowen says, “We’re seeing a political backlash, yet without identifying the target correctly.”


I think that Eric Gans (in “Donald  Trump, Metaconservative,” March 2016) puts his finger on one key appeal of Trump to many white voters in 2016: Not only did Trump, almost alone among the Republican candidates, actually speak against “PC” values — what Gans calls victimary issues or victimocracy, and which some Girardians see as a “promotion of minority concerns not as group interests but in the guise of victimary social justice” — he also persistently embodied disregard for “PC” values:

“The term “PC,” by which conservatives refer to the victimary phenomenon when they do so at all, reduces it to a matter of etiquette, ignoring its deeper political implications. The Republican presidential candidates have almost entirely avoided victimary issues despite their preponderance in the Democratic program: reducing incarceration and criminal prosecution, restraining the police, raising women’s pay from ’77 cents on the dollar’ and granting women sex-related health benefits, granting ‘transgendered’ boys access to women’s bathrooms, identifying voter-ID laws with ‘voter suppression,’ and generally treating Wall Street, the ‘one percent,’ ‘millionaires and billionaires’ and ‘the Koch brothers’ not merely as greedy cheats but as sustainers of ‘white privilege’”—not to speak of encouraging the ‘crybullying’ about racism and the ‘rape culture’ that goes on at college campuses. Only Trump and, while he was active, Ben Carson (whose recent endorsement of Trump confirms their agreement on this point) have conspicuously denounced PC, and none have made it the focus of their campaigns, except on the point of limiting immigration, which Trump has made so to speak his trump card. … As I pointed out [previously], Trump embodies far more than he articulates resistance to the victimocracy.”

Reading Gans’s list of ‘victimary issues’ in the Democratic program, above, it’s not hard to see why white men (and many women) would either not care about these things — after all, if you already have privilege in a culture, why would you want to restrain the police, reduce incarceration, change how bathrooms are assigned, loosen voting laws, increase income for other people, etc.? — or would actively resent these commitments to groups of people who are mostly “other,” mostly people you don’t see or personally know in our self-segregated society.

Beyond the fact that the programs and issues don’t necessarily resonate for many white voters (i.e., those who don’t have to worry much about prison, cops, rape, racism, voting restrictions, and finding a safe public restroom) is the deeper anger at being perceived and talked about by liberals and in the (so-called liberal) media as unjust, ignorant, and in fact “deplorable” (Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate term) because they disagree with liberals’ agenda. It’s maddening from the liberal perspective that they don’t recognise other people and groups as victims of a structurally and historically unequal, unfair, and often oppressive society; but from perhaps their own perspective, these Trump voters simply resent government interference in their lives, the coddling of weak-willed whiners, the redistribution of their hard-earned dollars to lazy/illegal and undeserving swindlers, and being told what they can say and what they can’t say by condescending intellectual effetes.

Trump’s constant rejection of the teleprompter telegraphed to his supporters and would-be supporters more than any specific words could do his refusal to be tamed and made politically correct by anyone. His crude off-the-cuff remarks, his mocking of a disabled reporter, his blaming sexual assault in the military on putting men and women together, his refusal to release his tax returns, his bragging about his penis size, his calling Senator Elizabeth Warren ‘Pocahontas,’ his disparaging comment that men who change diapers are ‘acting like the wife,’ and so on, all convincingly signalled his rejection of the PC culture that many supporters find, variously, obnoxious, silly, undermining, blasphemous, threatening.

Gans goes on to talk about how Trump, while rarely talking about PC by name, managed to loudly proclaim by his demeanor

his rejection of White Guilt. … Trump’s unexpected staying power … reflects to my mind far more than attractiveness to the benighted bearers of poor-white resentment. On the contrary, Trump’s continual emphasis on ‘deals’ suggests a sharp intuition of how to adapt conservatism to the current victimocratic context. … The contempt of the voting public for Washington’s inability to ‘get anything done’ reflects the fact that under the current [then-Obama] administration, the shift of Democratic politics from liberalism to progressivism, from focusing on the concerns of the working class to those of ascriptive minorities, involves a fundamental change from defending interests to seeking justice. The first can be negotiated on a more or less level footing with opposing interests; the second can only be be resisted by unregenerate evil-doers, which is more or less the way [Obama] and his potential Democratic successors characterize the representatives of the other party. In this noxious context, the (meta)conservative position is not to deny victimary claims, but to normalize them: to turn them back into assertions of interests to be negotiated as political questions were in days of old — in a word, into issues that can be settled by making a deal. …

“In their preoccupation with denouncing Trump as a false conservative, the guardians of the flame forget that at a time when the victimary left seeks to portray the normal order of things in American society as founded on privilege and discrimination, Trump’s supporters turn to him as a figure of hope because his mind, unclouded by White Guilt, views the political battlefield, foreign as well as domestic, as a place for making deals. This used to be called Realpolitik.”

This assessment makes a lot of sense to me. Some Trump supporters probably just wanted to stick it to the liberals, stick it to the status quo conservatives, and the hell with the consequences; some are really racial bigots and/or misogynists who feel Trump is one of them; some just hated Hillary Clinton for what she’s actually done, said, or been, or for what they mistakenly and conspiratorially believe she’s done, said, or been, or because she’s not feminine enough or too feminine; some wildly hoped Trump would really bring back coal jobs, expel Muslims, and lock immigrants out of the country; but many others probably voted reasonably in their own interests for someone whom they trusted to effectively and palatably negotiate progressive actions away just like a civil business deal. In identifying with Trump, they were (and are) identifying themselves as on an equal footing with those who are eager to judge them; they’re affirming that they deserve to be treated as moral equals with progressives and liberals in discussing civil rights and social justice, not as moral inferiors and deplorable humans as they have been accused.


[Added:] On the other hand, as Eric Meier notes in the comments, one could say that while Trump doesn’t articulate resistance to political correctness but rather embodies it (as described above), he certainly articulates, in his inarticulate way, that he is a victim (he claims the status both for himself and for his supporters) — and claims to victimhood are the stuff of which many conservatives would tell us that PC is made.

Anyone who follows Trump’s Twitter feed knows that he feels victimized and persecuted by the media and certain celebrities. He feels he was a victim of voter fraud (and in the primaries, that they were rigged against him), Trump yelled out at a rally in Oct. 2016 “I am a victim!” Kellyanne Conway, senior White House advisor, has explained how Trump and Trump staffers are victims of the biased media (more examples in How crybully Trump and his supporters excel at playing the victim).  Trump supporters also express outrage at their victimhood, at how the left and the media are so unfair to them, at how modern society’s too-soft, too-feminine culture causes them suffering (The Precarious Masculinity of 2016 Voters: Several recent surveys suggest that when men feel persecuted, they turn to Donald Trump for affirmation, The Atlantic, Oct. 2016;  Trump’s supporters believe a false narrative of white victimhood  : Trump voters believe that whites and Christians face discrimination — but they call the left sensitive snowflakes, in Salon, 17 Feb 2017; and Psychology explains how Trump won by making white men feel like victims. (Quartz, 11 Nov. 2016)

The Giradian point is that just about everyone and every group in our culture sees the benefit of claiming to be seen as a victim, even while diligently accusing the other group of playing the victim card. In his book Evolution and Conversion, Rene Girard notes that “Very often, Christian principles prevail in a caricaturist form, whereby the defense of victims entails new persecutions … You have to prove that your opponent is a persecutor in order to justify your own desire to persecute.” And in his book When These Things Begin, Girard comments that “In the United States and everywhere, a lot of current cultural phenomena can be unified by describing them as the discovery of new victims … It’s no longer possible to persecute except in the name of victims.” This is where we are today.

Dwight Longnecker talks about this phenomenon in “The Rise of the Bully Victim” at The Imaginative Conservative: “The problem is that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. Being a victim is fashionable—ironically, becoming bullied is now the best way to bully others. It works like this: If you want to move forward in the world, make progress for you and your tribe, further your ambitions, justify your immoral actions, grab a bigger piece of the pie, and elbow others away from the trough, simply present yourself and your tribe as victims. Once you successfully portray yourselves as a poor, outcast, persecuted, minority group you instantly gain the sympathy of all. The first key to success in this campaign is to portray your victim condition as something over which you have no control. … The third stage of the campaign is the release of anger. Once the victim is identified and the information is widespread, the rage can be released. The anger must be expressed because, without knowing it, a new cycle of tribal scapegoating has developed. As the tribe gathers around the victim in sympathy, they must find the culprit, and their search for the culprit (whether he is guilty or not does not matter) sends them on the same frantic scapegoating quest that created their victim in the first place. The supposed persecutors have now become the persecuted. The unhappiness of the tribe (which presents itself as sympathy for the victim) is now focused on violence against the new victim.”

It sure didn’t hurt Trump’s cause, his claim to victimhood for himself and his supporters, when Clinton called them deplorables. Instant victim status there.

Gil Bailie in his book Violence Unveiled, talks about victimhood in the context of King Herod’s slaughtering of the innocents. He references a 1992 essay by Robert Hughes that seems ultra-relevant today:

In recent years, skewering the politically correct and the political correctness of those mocking political correctness has become a thriving journalistic enterprise. One of the more interesting examples of the genre was a cover-story essay by Robert Hughes, which appeared in the February 3, 1992, edition of Time magazine. The essay was entitled “The Fraying of America.”  In it, Hughes cast a cold eye on the American social landscape, and his assessment was summarized in the article’s subtitle: “When a nation’s diversity breaks into factions, demagogues rush in, false issues cloud debate, and everybody has a grievance.”

“Like others, Hughes found himself puzzling over how and why the status of ‘victim’ had become the seal of moral rectitude in American society. He began his essay by quoting a passage from W. H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being. The lines he quoted were ones in which King Herod ruminates over whether the threat to civilization posed by the birth of Christ is serious enough to warrant murdering all the male children in one region of the empire. (The historical Herod may have been a vulgar and conniving Roman sycophant, but Auden’s Herod, let’s not forget, is watching the rough beast of the twentieth century slouching toward Bethlehem.) Weighing all the factors, Herod decides that the Christ child must be destroyed, even if to do so innocents must be slaughtered. For, he argues in the passage that Hughes quoted, should the Child survive:

Reason will be replaced by Revelation . . . . Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish . . . . The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.

“Hughes quoted this passage from Auden in order to point out that Auden’s prophecy had come true. As Auden’s Herod had predicted, American society was awash in what Hughes termed the “all-pervasive claim to victimhood.” He noted that in virtually all the contemporary social, political, or moral debates, both sides were either claiming to be victims or claiming to speak on their behalf. It was clear to Hughes, however, that this was not a symptom of a moral victory over our scapegoating impulses. There can be no victims without victimizers. Even though virtually everyone seemed to be claiming the status of victim, the claims could be sustained only if some of the claims could be denied. (At this point, things become even murkier, for in the topsy-turvy world of victimology, a claimant denied can easily be mistaken for a victim scorned, the result being that denying someone’s claim to victim status can have the same effect as granting it.) Nevertheless, the algebraic equation of victimhood requires victimizers, and so, for purely logical reasons, some claims have to be denied. Some, in Hughes’s words, would have to remain “the butt of every farce and satire.” Hughes argued that all those who claim victim status share one thing in common, “they have been denied parity with that Blond Beast of the sentimental imagination, the heterosexual, middle-class, white male.

“Hughes realized that a hardy strain of envy and resentment toward this one, lone nonvictim continued to play an important role in the squabbles over who would be granted victim status. Those whose status as victim was secure were glaring at this last nonvictim with something of the vigilante’s narrow squint. Understandably, the culprit was anxious to remove his blemish. “Since our new found sensitivity decrees that only the victim shall be the hero,” Hughes wrote, “the white American male starts bawling for victim status too.”


Michael Boyle, at The Sound of Sheer Silence blog, has actually (in May 2016) addressed this Cult of Victimhood, as he terms it, very articulately, and he links it to Trump’s strategy in this recent election. He goes into some detail about the Girardian take on victims, then outlines three problems that occur in society when we move from the fact of victimhood to the status or narrative of victimhood, the group identity as victims:

The first is that “the identity of the group is tied up in the status of being a victim.  Thus, perversely, there is an incentive for the minority to seek to be victimized, because it supports and reinforces the group identity, leading to counter-productive co-dependent relationships with the persecuting majority.”

The second, that “it creates a tempting platform to seize the moral high ground.  In light of the message of Jesus, we have an obligation to have special moral concern for victimsas victims.  But it does not follow that those that are victimized have some special moral qualities or status by virtue of being victims.  Being a victim does not necessarily make you wiser, or more just, or better able to discern moral realities in the world around you, because being a victim is ultimately and fundamentally arbitrary. As the great Ta-Nehisi Coates says, ‘[w]e, too, are capable of fictions because, as it turns out, oppression confers no wisdom and is rarely self-improving.’ … [T]his is an inversion for the old vision of the Sacred — whereas before the society explained that victims became victims through some narrative of moral failure, now the victims understand their victim status through a narrative of their own moral superiority.” This ends up dividing the world into victims (righteous) and victimizers (unrighteous), which “acts as a kind of moral shield for their own behavior.  The logical chain goes like this:  because I am a victim, I am righteous; because I am righteous, those that challenge or critique that righteousness (especially if the critique comes from those that victimized me) are per se wrong and their critique is per se illegitimate; thus, I can stay in a comfortable bubble of my own imputed righteousness. ”

And this lead to the third problem: “Because of the power of feature #1 and especially feature #2 of the Cult of Victimhood, everyone wants to get in on the action.  And, given both the pervasive nature of scapegoating and the cultural awareness of the phenomenon (even if inchoate) brought about by thousands of years of Judeo-Christian presence, everyone can get in on the action if they look hard enough.  Everyone can craft a story of why they are the “real” victims over and against some group of victimizers.”

So, Boyle concludes, to resolve this deadlock, we “try to adjudicate who are the ‘real’ victims and who are the ‘fake’ victims.  Girard would insist that this is an utterly futile activity, because all of these stories of victimhood are on some level true and on some level self-serving nonsense.  The fact of being the victim is true, but the narrative of why the victimization occurred, tied into to some group identity and moral status, is not. … Again, it’s crucial, here and elsewhere, to draw a very clear line between the fact of victimization and the status as a victim.  People get victimized, and we have a moral obligation to try to end the victimization.  But the Cult of Victimization makes that project more difficult, because it weaponizes victimization and intermixes genuine victimization with dubious claims of moral righteousness.  It also incentivizes out-and-out bogus claims of victimization, because the power of victimhood status is to enticing. ”


One more thing I found interesting in Cowen’s comments: He suggests the idea of a coming “reckoning,” which he says has probably already started, involving 1. an external crisis (foreign policy catastrophe, pandemic, economic crash, etc.), and our government not having the wherewithal to respond effectively fiscally, organisationally, and attitudinally — due to not having fiscal freedom within the budget to gear up spending, due to our waning credibility in foreign affairs, due to our preference for fighting against each other instead of seeking a solution we can all get behind; 2. rising debt burdens that we have trouble paying; and 3. a decline in the quality of governance in decision-making and execution, which he says we are seeing already:

“When you have a growing pie, most people are happy and they’re very forward looking, and they think about a brighter future and how they can contribute to that brighter future. When you’re closer to a fixed pie setting, people fight over the scraps on the table, politics becomes more combative, more rooted in insults, social media play a bigger role … and that is to some extent the world we’re in right now.”

Cowen thinks we don’t have the ability now to respond to a new crisis, and for those who have read much about mimetic theory, loud warning bells go off.  Rowan Williams, then-Archbishop of Canterbury, in 2008 well-summarised what happens in a society when internal divisions proliferate, when mimetic rivalry grows to a fever-pitch, pitting those in the society against each other:

“Because we compete for the same goods and comforts, we need to sustain our competition with our rivals and maintain distance from them. But to stop this getting completely out of hand, we unite with our rivals to identify the cause of the scarcity that makes us compete against each other, with some outside presence we can all agree to hate. … It doesn’t take much imagination to see how internally divided societies find brief moments of unity when they have successfully identified some other group as the real source of their own insecurity. Look at any major conflict in the world at the moment and the mechanism is clear enough. Repressive and insecure states in the Islamic world demonise a mythical Christian ‘West’, while culturally confused, sceptical and frightened European and North American societies cling to the picture of a global militant Islam, determined to ‘destroy our way of life’.”

Williams goes on to say that our tendency to unify against an identified enemy in order to reduce internal conflict “gives a fragile society an interest in keeping some sort of external conflict going. Consciously or not, political leaders in a variety of contexts are reluctant to let go of an enemy who has become indispensable to their own stability.”

And this is true in every context, both when we mark foreign powers and groups as enemies (and in fighting them feel comforted in our own unity against them) but also before and after we focus on those external enemies, when we see some of those in our society as the enemy, the “other,” as this last election cycle has made very clear that many of us do in the U.S.  Having an enemy always gives humans the sense that what’s wrong is out there, which is very comforting, because not only can we feel morally superior but we also don’t have to change anything in ourselves (or “our group”). We can just expel the enemy from our midst (who is already seen as other) or vanquish the threatening external enemy and all will be well, we mistakenly think.  In fact, we are addicted not only to soothing opiates these days, as Cowen notes, but we humans have always been addicted to the drug (pharmakon) of scapegoating to create unity, to the poison that feels like a remedy: we expel the other, who is seen as poisonous, and in doing so we temporarily heal the group’s inner division, which feels good. Briefly.

Many on the “left” accuse Trump and his supporters of scapegoating victims, of blaming our society’s woes on Muslims, Hispanics, so-called illegals, women, welfare recipients, Obamacare supporters, Obama supporters, climate change believers, scientists, the list is long — while many on the “right” accuse liberals of blaming and scapegoating Trump and his supporters, White House press secretary Spicer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, climate change deniers, gun rights advocates, the list is long. Meanwhile, Trump has demonstrated both a strong desire to unify us against external enemies and a vanishingly slight grasp of diplomacy.

Makes you want to zone out with a good romantic comedy, doesn’t it?


Reconciliation in Action

joshuaandwillisjohnsonfergusonMOAug2014Yesterday, All Things Considered’s Melissa Block interviewed the Rev Willis Johnson of Wellspring Church in Ferguson, MO, a town where what’s apparently been simmering for a while has come to the boil this week with the police killing of a teenager named Michael Brown there last weekend.

I hadn’t really been following all the details of the shooting and aftermath, but that made the impact on me of Johnson’s comments and actions no less powerful. I consider his embracing of 18-year-old Joshua Wilson a deeply heroic, Christian, Buddhist, human act . And I use all those words to describe it because his actions and reflections on it reveal:

recognition of himself in another person, including when the other person is shaking with anger, about to do what he thinks is a mistake. And that awareness comes to him as a human, living a particular human experience in time and place (“I’ve been Joshua before”), and because “I do understand what it means to be that angry.” This reminds me of tonglen practice in the Buddhist tradition, where we bring up our own experience of emotion to tap into compassion for others feeling the same way. We all know what strong emotion feels like and knowing that, we can understand “the other” at a deep level even when we don’t fully understand. I think this is good action in and of itself (this heightening our awareness of the sameness of self and other), but Johnson takes it further when he

risks self, by touching, speaking, holding the other person in the midst of chaos, and accepting into himself the other’s pain and his desire to harm: “I’d rather you, if you gonna fuss and cuss and be mad, I want you to do it with me, do it in my ear.” This is the essence of being a hero and of being a Christian, to my mind: being willing to carry and bear another’s pain, regardless of potential cost to self. Not in a martyr sense, not in a belief that ‘I’m strong enough to bear your weakness,’ but in a clear

realisation of interconnecteness, a felt sense that my being willing to carry your pain is not only for your benefit but for my benefit, too: “We kept each other from harm’s way.” Johnson realised he needed affirmation, embracing, and being held back as much as Joshua did. I see this sense of interconnectness as a particular facet of the Buddhist tradition as well as of the Girardian Christian tradition, where we are all seen as interdividuals, our identity constructed not in and of the self but in the relationships between and among us.

Finally: Johnson speaks several times in this 7-minute piece of “human nature,” what makes us human, including empathy for others as well as feeling deeply the pain of the human condition: “If it’s not touching you, if it’s not personal, that’s where there’s a problem.”

Co-mingled with his words about being human are the tears when he talks about being a black man in America today: his father’s fears for him, his own fears for his teenaged son, feeling like a scared kid when he’s pulled over by cops.  He speaks of a need for “reconciliation, resolution and resurrection.” I see actions and reflections like Johnson’s as enacting reconciliation and resurrection here on earth.

It’s Still the End of the World

I’ve written about this before (Expect the End of the World. Laugh.; Trapped in Hope, Practicing Resurrection) but reading a recent New York Times piece about Paul Kingsnorth and The Dark Mountain Project has reawakened my prevailing sense of cheerful hopelessness about the natural world — which includes pretty much everything we know, including us — and the need to not only engage imagination and faith but to disengage from false hope.

Kingsnorth, responding to Naomi Klein’s comment that grief is important because it can lead to change, agrees “with the need for grief but not with the idea that it must lead to change — at least not the kind of change that mainstream environmental groups pursue”:

“What do you do,’ he asked, ‘when you accept that all of these changes are coming, things that you value are going to be lost, things that make you unhappy are going to happen, things that you wanted to achieve you can’t achieve, but you still have to live with it, and there’s still beauty, and there’s still meaning, and there are still things you can do to make the world less bad? And that’s not a series of questions that have any answers other than people’s personal answers to them. Selfishly it’s just a process I’m going through.’ He laughed. ‘It’s extremely narcissistic of me. Rather than just having a personal crisis, I’ve said: “Hey! Come share my crisis with me!”‘

Maybe others aren’t feeling this sense of crisis, aren’t grieving, really are positive that we can lick this thing. All I can say is, I’m not. And it’s OK. There is much to celebrate and to love every day.

Later, Dougald Hine, a partner in Dark Mountain, is quoted:

People think that abandoning belief in progress, abandoning the belief that if we try hard enough we can fix this mess, is a nihilistic position,” Hine said. “They think we’re saying: ‘Screw it. Nothing matters.’ But in fact all we’re saying is: ‘Let’s not pretend we’re not feeling despair. Let’s sit with it for a while. Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other. And then as our eyes adjust to the darkness, what do we start to notice?’

I love that question: What do we start to notice? That’s an experience I want to have and share and talk about with others. It reminds me of the permaculture principle, Observe and Interact. Unless we notice what’s before us, around us, inside us, then when we act we are like characters in a play, doing what’s scripted, what’s expected, our role, instead of really relating, soul to soul, minds and bodies engaged, with ourselves and all other beings.

Some, like George Monbiot and Naomi Klein, feel that Kingsnorth has given up. I think he is still spending his life being true, doing what matters most to him, preparing for the future in each daily, present moment, and supporting what he loves in his community:

“Last week, he and his wife made a long-planned move to rural Ireland, where they will be growing much of their own food and home schooling their children — a decision, he explained to me, that stemmed in part from a desire to distance himself from technological civilization and in part from wanting to teach his children skills they might need in a hotter future.

“Yet Kingsnorth has never intended to retreat altogether. For the past three years, he has spent a good portion of his time trying to stop a large supermarket from being built in Ulverston, in northern England. ‘Why do I do this,’ he wrote to me in an email, anticipating my questions, ‘when I know that in a national context another supermarket will make no difference at all, and when I know that I can’t stop the trend caused by the destruction of the local economy, and when I know we probably won’t win anyway?” He does it, he said, because his sense of what is valuable and good recoils at all that supermarket chains represent. ‘I’m increasingly attracted by the idea that there can be at least small pockets where life and character and beauty and meaning continue. If I could help protect one of those from destruction, maybe that would be enough..”

The bolded bit reminds me of Andre Gregory’s reiteration of the Findhorn community’s idea, and Gustav Björnstrand’s idea, in the film My Dinner with Andre (1981), that in a dystopian future there may be pockets of light, or islands of history (like the underground in the Dark Ages), where humans can continue to live and perhaps “preserve the light, life, the culture … to keep things living.”

I’m also reminded of Tolstoy’s short story (or parable, or catechism), “The Three Questions” (1885); the three questions, with their answers, are

  1. When is the best time to do each thing? The most important time is now. The present is the only time over which we have power.
  2. Who are the most important people to work with? The most important person is whoever you are with
  3. What is the most important thing to do at all time? The most important thing is to do good to the person you are with.

With the amendment I would make of “person” to “being,” I think it’s a recipe for right action at all times.

Kingsnorth’s calling also reminds me of Johnette Napolitano’s lyrics in her (Concrete Blonde) song, “True,” a kind of prayer:

One more sunset
Lay my head down – true
One more sunrise
Open my eyes up – true

Expect the End of the World. Laugh.

I’m in a local group reading through Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Handbook together. It posits climate change and peak oil — two separate but intertwined phenomena — and looks for ways local communities can become more resilient and vital in the face of greatly reduced energy resources and a planet where weather, habitat, and even masses like glaciers and seas are more and more in flux. (You can read more about the problem at Why Transition? There is also a 12-page leaflet that summarises the handbook.)

Hopkins’ suggestions and examples are meant to be hopeful, positive, creative, proactive, community-building. Ideas include generating fuel, food and housing locally, developing local currencies, sharing tools and skills, etc.  His vision is of an evolution in our vision and our systems that helps us to weather a low-carbon, End-of-the-Oil-Age future. It’s certainly worth reading.

I’ve also been reading some articles lately that have a different perspective from The Transition Handbook. The point of view of both of these — Quote Of The Year. And The Next. at The Automatic Earth and The Road Down From Empire at Resilience — seems to be more an expectation of adaptation or collapse — rather than the evolution Hopkins envisions and hopes for. These writers seem to expect that we’ll deal with it when it happens (adaptation) or we won’t (collapse).

And that feels most likely to me. I think we humans respond to what feels urgent, in our hearts, to our senses — and not what we are told or even what we consciously think and intellectually agree is urgent. And climate change and the waning of liquid fuel don’t feel urgent to most Americans, including me. If one year is 1 degree warmer than other years, it doesn’t feel like anything. And, as most of us have experienced, sometimes what does feel urgent in life isn’t nearly as important or critical in the long run as it feels in the moment, and I think this tempers our response to complex crises, as does hearing, year after year, that something is a crisis. We get weary of responding, even if we respond only in our imaginations.

I really gravitate to the acceptance that disaster will happen, whether environmental or otherwise. For me, expecting that we won’t avert disaster doesn’t change at all my desire to do more with less; to be continually less involved with a consumerist/capitalist/growth-focused culture; to want and to work for a strong community where I (and others) have strong connections with neighbours, acquaintances and friends; to be in physical touch with the Earth around me and the other animals and plants living here; and to live a creative, centered  and connected life.  Accepting that we humans will probably fail to make needed changes  — if we even really knew what they were, the system being so complex and dynamic naturally without even accounting for political, financial and economic, and technological complexity — feels freeing to me.

When I started making changes, years ago, to align my actions more with my values (still very much a work in progress), it wasn’t because I was afraid we were going to run out of oil, though I knew even then that we probably would if we kept doing what we were doing, because it is a finite resource, or and it wasn’t because I thought my actions would have any significant impact on the course of events beyond my life, and maybe not even in my own life. It was only because these actions brought me joy and made me feel whole(r), because they felt right (true, real, alive) to me. And that’s the only way I really want to speak about or “do” resiliency with other people, from the place of “what actions align most fully with what we/you value?”

I guess in perhaps a perverse way, I value relaxing and letting go of expectations in the face of probable impending doom. One of my favourite poems (The Dakini Speaks, by Jennifer Welwood), about personal loss, is applicable for me here:

Look: Everything that can be lost, will be lost.
It’s simple – how could we have missed it for so long?
Let’s grieve our losses fully, like human ripe beings.
But please, let’s not be so shocked by them.
Let’s not act so betrayed,
As though life had broken her secret promise to us.

Impermanence is life’s only promise to us,
And she keeps it with ruthless impeccability. …

For me, this isn’t a call to be passive, to do nothing, to roll over. Far from it. It’s a call to dance. We still act, every day, and it’s good to be aware of the stakes of our actions (for every being, insofar as we can know them) and to think about how to act well, and to do it. I’m an utter (yet subtle) evangelist for what I care about, but I harbor no notion that most of us will change our minds or our actions until it feels urgent to do so. And being told that a situation is urgent — in the words of TV infomercials, “You must act now!” — sometimes just increases the listener’s resistance to any message that follows (it does so for me, anyway).

For me, the poem I quoted is a reminder that no matter what we do, life (and “lifestyles”) will always always change, and everything will end, we will all end, in some way, even if we then begin again (or not). For me, it all starts with that in mind.

When people talk about hope, or try to find hope in situations or imagined situations, I can’t join in. I’m just not hoping for outcomes. More and more (though not fully) in the last 15 years or so, my practice goes another direction. It seems to be the direction of no-hope, at least when it comes to wanting or hoping for a specific outcome.

I’ve written about this quite a lot before. I wrote in April about environmentalists giving up. One, Paul Kingsnorth, says we need to replace “hope” with “imagination:” “I don’t think we need hope. I think we need imagination. We need to imagine a future which can’t be planned for and can’t be controlled. I find that people who talk about hope are often really talking about control. They hope desperately that they can keep control of the way things are panning out.”

Imagination is, I think, the basis of The Transition Handbook: communities envisioning their own rebirth and resiliency. But if we are envisioning the world we want for the future, if we are trying to find a way to make it less disastrous, isn’t that also keeping control? On the other hand, what else can we do? I do have a vision, of sorts, which I’ve written about before, of the completely gratuitous, prodigal embrace of the loving, forgiving victim. Of the joyous revelation of love. Of grace.

So “no-hope” doesn’t mean that I am in despair, though I may be grieving losses. It doesn’t mean I’m passive, though I may think that no action (or no speaking) is the best action to take. It doesn’t mean — in the context of transition, climate change and peak oil — that I’m not interested in being part of a vital community, in resiliency (personal and communal), in gardening, public transportation, being outdoors more, doing what benefits the web of all life, reducing and reusing, lightening my footprint on the earth, and so on. I’m excited about all those things.

It just means that I’m not looking for anything to give me hope. To the extent I have hope, or faith, or joy, it’s not related to outcomes, to a vision, to what might or might not happen in the future. I feel willing to receive what arises, and to the extent that I’m not willing, this is my practise, to open my arms wide.

It’s like Wendell Berry says, in his “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”:

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

So, you know, I’m FINE (Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Egotistical). And I have no hope that I will be much else, but I am opening my arms to receive what arises.

As I wrote several years ago, part of a longer poem:

When nothing is sure, everything is possible.
(Margaret Drabble)

No hope.
No hope for the planet, for creation,
for my own violent nature,
for human progress,
for better living through science,
for community through technology,
for peace through meditation and prayer.

I pray, meditate, participate
virtually, locally.
When I notice, barely, my own violence
I offer it solace and wait in it, fidget,
pray for sustainable peace.
I am learning non-violence.
I am getting to know the Earth.

But: no hope.

Faith that love will always embrace,
disarm, and absorb the power of hate.

What that looks like,
is looking like,
will look like,
is beyond me. Or perhaps within me.

Whatever it is,
I rejoice with the stars
to flicker for a moment.

Fascination with the Apocalypse Now

horseriders on Driftwood Beach, JI, 27 April 2012


Someone recently asked, at a sort of salon conversation gathering on 21 Dec. — the day that some believed the world was going to end (as implied by the Mayans’ calendar ending on that date) — why we humans are so fascinated by speculation about the END OF THE WORLD. It’s a good question.

After all, although the Mayans didn’t really predict the end of the world — their  ancient calendar simply rolled over, beginning a new 394-year century (baktun), which some believe may usher in a new and perhaps more peaceful age — lots of groups and people throughout history, since 2800 B.C.!, have predicted and prepared for Doomsday, Armageddon, the Rapture, the Second Coming, Judgement Day, the Apocalypse, the End.


Plenty of religious folk in particular — popes, cardinals, rabbis, prophets, nuns, Shakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventist forerunners the Second Adventists, the Nation of Islam, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Millerites in the 1840s, Herbert W. Armstrong, founder of the Worldwide Church of God (in the 1930s, 40s and 70s), Billy Graham in 1950, Hal Lindsey in his bestselling The Late, Great Planet Earth (my mom had a copy), Pat Robertson on the 700 Club — but also others, like 16th century seer and apothecary Nostradamus (who may have said that the world would end in July 1999), UFO cults, numerologists, pyramidologists, alien channelers, the white-supremacist group Aryan Nations, John Napier (the mathematician who discovered logarithms), scientists who expected comets and asteroids to wipe us out — have been predicting the end of the world practically since humans have existed on the planet.

Some contemporaries of Jesus interpreted his words as written in Matthew 16:28 (“Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom”) and in Matthew 24:33-34 (“So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.  Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled”) as a prediction of the world’s imminent demise then, and religious people have been predicting specific dates ever since, despite Jesus’s assurance immediately following (Matthew 24:36) that ” of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.”

Perhaps the “the first bona fide Christian doomsday cult” was founded around 156 AD and lasted for several centuries even though Jesus didn’t show up. Some thought the world would end 6000 years after it was created, or no later than 500 A.D.  There were “end dates” during the 800s, 900s, and every century thereafter, dozens and dozens of them. New England preacher and witch hunter Cotton Mather predicted it would end three times (1697, 1617, and 1736), Christian preacher Harold Camping has predicted “Judgment Day” on May 21, 2011, and again in 1994, and they’re not alone in their serial predictions.

Some people still interpret the books of Revelation, Daniel, Isaiah and Ezekiel in the Bible to be apocalyptic prediction, with a heavy focus on events in Israel seen as ushering in the end times.

(Lists of predictions are available online for those interested, via Wikipedia’s List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events and Chris Nelson’s rather more detailed A Brief History of the Apocalypse.)


Many people, families and small groups now  (religious and not) are quietly planning for a cataclysmic end to life — either globally, nationally, or regionally — as we know it. There are so many ways we imagine we could go! To name just a few:

  • the consequences of climate change, ranging from scarcity of water, food and oil to a new ice age or extreme flooding caused by glaciers melting;
  • government attack on gun owners or on non-Christians, or conversely, an armed citizen insurrection against the government;
  • a terrorist act or series of them, involving nuclear or chemical warfare;
  • widespread natural disaster like an asteroid hitting, or a super volcano, or a massive earthquake or shift in tectonic plates;
  • widespread public health disaster such as antibiotic-resistant infection or highly contagious and lethal disease;
  • technological (or Congressional?) disaster that could freeze the flow of money and keep us from accessing bank accounts, causing worldwide panic;
  • the planet Nibiru could enter our solar system and become a second sun;
  • the magnetic poles could shift again

And the list goes on. The Telegraph, in its Dec. 2010 article, “Armageddon in 2012? The truth behind the doomsday theories,” listed and rated some of the most popular doomsday theories.

We recognise the dangers of being mortal and of living on Earth, and some of us spend a lot of time thinking about it and preparing for threats. Even those of us who don’t do much to prepare may feel perennially anxious in the shadow of a cataclysmically disastrous future.

As a recent CNN article noted, there are a number of popular TV shows about preparing for the end, including Doomsday Preppers (a reality show, on National Geographic Channel), Falling Skies (fiction, TNT), Revolution (fiction, NBC), and The Walking Dead (AMC, fiction about the zombie apocalypse). The article also reminds us of the “Left Behind” series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that are based on the dispensationalist idea of a rapture, or the Second Coming, and the years of tribulation on earth afterward. Post-apocalyptic fiction and tales of werewolves, zombies and vampires abound. Disaster movies have been popular for many decades, from the first apocalyptic film in 1916, The End of the World.


Of course, some think it’s just Americans who are obsessed with doomsday prophecies. In July 2012, the BBC considered “America’s Fascination with the Apocalypse — “There is a long tradition of such apocalyptic thinking in the US. But … it has now moved beyond religious prophecies into the secular world. … [A]ctivists from both the political left and right have embraced apocalypse thinking, issuing dramatic warnings that everything from the traditional American way of life to the very existence of the planet is under threat” — and in Sept. 2012 at Fordham University in NYC a lecture was held with the title “Apocalypse Now: America’s Fascination with Doomsday and Why It Matters,” with Elaine Pagels, Jim Hoberman, and Andrew Delbanco speaking on the topic. In the BBC piece, author Matthew Barrett Gross (The Last Myth) calls it “an idea that unites all Americans” and says it has “played a central role in the American story since the very beginning.” Apparently there are 3 million “preppers” in America, preparing and stockpiling for an apocalyptic future.


Scientific American also covered the phenomenon this month in a collection of  articles, essays and blog posts (originally published from 2009-2012) on its website and devoted a print issue to it, with the headline “the end. or is it?,” in Sept. 2010, including Michael Moyer’s “Eternal Fascinations with the End: Why We’re Suckers for Stories of Our Own Demise,” which suggests that “[t]he impulse is partially a consequence of our pattern-seeking nature … It is in our nature to weave a simple story from a complex set of data points.”

That CNN article I referred to earlier, and many other sites online, offer a number of other explanations for our obsession with the end of the world, despite the fact that “apocalyptic prophecy behavior is puzzling at first glance because people tend to be optimistic, rather than pessimistic.” They boiled down to a few main ideas:

  • Apocalyptic tales give us a safe theatre to explore death and the unknown, as they “embed a tale of fantasy into reality.” This might be called counterphobia, “the idea that we pursue what we are most afraid of in an attempt and effort to control anxiety over it. I think at some level, the fascination with the end of the world – whether a book or in movie form – gives us a way to control the uncontrollable, to master anxiety over death which is inescapable. For that reason, it provides us with a degree of comfort,” says psychologist Lawrence Rubin, quoted in The Apocalypse in Popular Culture: What’s the Fascination? by Calum Robson.  Richard Beck discourses on length and with great insight on this idea in his series of posts The Theology of Monsters, including “Monsters, Horror & Death.” More on this below.
  • Related to and deriving from the first but diverging slightly: Apocalyptic scenarios and predictions give us a sense of greater control, not just over death-anxiety but by offering an opportunity to reimagine and remake our world, to change our lives, to become more self-reliant, to feel we can control and co-create our future and mold it so that we feel we are not victims but survivors. In this last — seeing selves as survivors rather than victims — it’s still very similar to the first idea, that we can face (the possibility of) our own death and yet live. We can expect the end of the world and prepare ourselves so well for it that we survive it. And it’s similar to the last idea (below), that our lives feel humdrum, so we long to shake them up by imagining — with that delicious frisson of terror we experience when watching horror movies or telling ghost stories — the unimaginable. But there is also a New Year’s resolution feel about this explanation, a belief and feeling that we can co-create a new and improved world, that whatever comes may be better. In a way, that’s still a strategy for reducing death anxiety (like a belief in a happy afterlife), by means of imbuing us with a sense of renewal and even hope.
  • Another explanation is that these doomsday scenarios allow us to rise above our petty differences of gender, colour, race, creed, class, etc., and cooperate for the good of all against a powerful adversary. (Rubin, again, in The Apocalypse in Popular Culture: What’s the Fascination? by Calum Robson). It’s a narrative that captures our sense of the heroism of humanity. We feel good about ourselves because we are in the struggle together, making communal and noble sacrifices against a common enemy.
  • Finally, for some, these stories may offer a way out of despair or simply the boredom of a humdrum, unsatisfying life: “[T]hose who hope the world will end [may] need a little excitement in their lives or secretly want society to start over.  ‘There’s a lot of benefit that may come for some if the world ends, unfortunately, and some people look forward to that.'” (CNN) And along the same lines, we like to imagine the world ending on our watch (as people also did in ancient times and ever since) because it enhances or validates our sense of being a key part of something absolutely monumental: “We all believe we live in an exceptional time, perhaps even a critical moment in the history of the species. Technology appears to have given us power over the atom, our genomes, the planet — with potentially dire consequences. This attitude may stem from nothing more than our desire to place ourselves at the center of the universe. … Imagining the end of the world is nigh makes us feel special.” Cracked magazine (go-to source for this sort of thing, right?) says it this way:

As a species, we like the apocalypse in the same way that a mopey teenager might like the idea of their own funeral: We want to see our decaying remains and revel in the tragic glory that we couldn’t appreciate until it was too late. We want to see crumbling skyscrapers and flooded metropolises and know that, once upon a time, we built those things.

Not only do we feel part of something incredible, but imagining THE END — whether of our own life or of everyone’s life all at once — boosts our appreciation for what we have in the here and now.


I said before that these explanations boil down to a few main themes, but really I think there is only one underlying theme: Seeking to comfort ourselves by controlling anxiety about what we can’t control. And what we most can’t control, and what everything else we can’t control hints at, is our own death and the death of those we love. We want to be survivors, but history and medicine tell us that we won’t be, if surviving means that our hearts keep on beating. Most of us won’t even be remembered beyond a generation or two.

We want to be the heroes of our own stories — noble, good and strong — but in the end we will be bones, ashes, compost (if we’re not locked inside titanium vaults).


In the past, and in less developed countries now, people have been more in touch with death, because it was ordinary. It happened in the home, it happened often, it happened accompanied by a lot of pain and undeniable suffering. People feared it but they were also conscious of it.

Now, in modern times and places, we still fear death and dying, even though we rarely see it first-hand, in our homes, in the streets, every day. Still, the absolute threat of death is just as prevalent as ever — we are all still going to die — but now we are much more able to repress the thought of death from our conscious minds. Most of us don’t smell its stench. We rarely see it and when we do, it’s often in antiseptic hospitals, or on a mediated screen.

Beck’s post on Monsters and Death, mentioned above, addresses this:

Thanatologists, those scholars who study how cultures deal with death, call our current era ‘the pornography of death.‘ That is, modern life in America is typified by systematic cultural death repression. That is, death is systematically pushed out of consciousness. Consequently, to discuss death in the public sphere is inappropriate. Like pornography, talk of death is illicit.

He sees the Industrial Revolution, which changed the way we got food from killing and processing it in our yards (“Farm children lived with death on a daily basis”) to buying nuggets that look nothing like a chicken (“Boneless meat fosters a kind of death repression”) as one thing that distanced us from death, and the other is of course the modern hospital: “Before the rise of the modern hospital we died at home in our own beds. After death, the body was prepared and displayed in the home. The wake was in the home. In short, death and dead bodies were common features in every American household.” Now we have a funeral industry and we’ve moved corpses out of our back yards and into memorial gardens.

In short, “In modern America [and elsewhere], one never comes into contact with the dead. This lack of contact fosters death repression.”


The ways most of us do come in contact with death are precisely through our imaginations (as humans have always done — including when we lived daily with actual, ubiquitous death — through “grimm” fairy tales, ghost stories, fables, doomsday books, art imagery, and so on) and now also through the media, which present us with stories, photos and videos of plane crashes, natural disasters, terrifying encounters with sharks and grizzlies, mass shootings, tragic highway deaths, acts of terrorism and war, etc. We also have extremely violent and popular video games where people kill and are killed over and over.

I think the glimpses of death we get through the media, even through those video games, only serve to keep death safely in the unconscious realm. We think if we rehearse it, if we acknowledge its existence in fantasy, in the lives of other people in other circumstances than ours, that we will somehow defeat it. But we don’t. And we won’t.


I said earlier that I think that apocalypse-speculation all boils down to one explanation, which is seeking to comfort ourselves by controlling anxiety about what we can’t control. I’ve explained how I think that motivation underlies our urge to explore death in a “safe” space (far away, in imagination, non-immediately) and our preparations and affirmations that lead us to believe we are survivors and not victims; and I think that the same explanation also underlies the satisfyingly noble feeling we have when we feel we’re cooperating together, rising above our differences, against a common enemy (aliens, comet, germs, NRA, government, terrorists, etc.) as well as how special we feel to be part of something extraordinary. Whether religious, atheistic, pagan or other, we humans seem to want a “sacred centre” to give our lives meaning, to give us a feeling of transcendence, goodness, unanimity in righteousness. To give us identity.

As always, I feel James Alison explored and expressed the psychology of the “sacred centre” and the unanimity, grief and fear attendant with it — all of which are important to us when speculating on all things ending — in his talk on contemplation in a world of violence, after 9/11. I’m quoting at length because I think his insights are complex, deep, and widely applicable:

I would like to take us all back in our memories to the afternoon of September 11th — the afternoon, that is, for those of us who were on this side of the Atlantic. What I want to suggest to you is that we were all summoned to participate in something satanic. Now, by ‘satanic’ I don’t mean an over-the-top figure of speech, but something very specific, with very specific anthropological content, something whose very ability to be decoded by us is a sign of its failing transcendence.

“[I]mmediately we began to respond, and our response is to create meaning. It is our response that I am seeking to examine. Our response was sparked by two particular forces: the locations chosen for the suicide with collateral murder — places symbolic of power, wealth and success (never mind that many of those killed were neither powerful, wealthy or successful); and the omnipresence in the cities in question, and particularly New York, of rolling cameras and a hugely powerful media network which enabled a significant proportion of the planet to be sucked in to spectating from a safe distance. An already mimetic center, drawing more attention than ever towards itself, on that day became virtually inescapable.

“As we were sucked in, so we were fascinated. The “tremendum et fascinosum,” as Otto described the old sacred, took hold of us.  … And immediately the old sacred worked its magic: we found ourselves being sucked in to a sacred center, one where a meaningless act had created a vacuum of meaning, and we found ourselves giving meaning to it. All over London I found that friends had stopped work, offices were closing down, everyone was glued to the screen. In short, there had appeared, suddenly, a holy day. Not what we mean by a holiday, a day of rest, but an older form of holiday, a being sucked out of our ordinary lives in order to participate in a sacred and sacrificial centre so kindly set up for us by the meaningless suicides.

“And immediately the sacrificial center began to generate the sort of reactions that sacrificial centers are supposed to generate: a feeling of unanimity and grief. Let me make a parenthesis here. I am not referring to the immediate reactions of those actually involved — rescue services, relatives, friends, whose form of being drawn in was as a response to an emergency and a family tragedy. I am referring to the rest of us. There took hold of an enormous number of us a feeling of being pulled in, being somehow involved, as though it was part of our lives. Phrases began to appear to the effect that “We’re all Americans now” — a purely fictitious feeling for most of us. It was staggering to watch the togetherness build up around the sacred center, quickly consecrated as Ground Zero, a togetherness that would harden over the coming hours into flag waving, a huge upsurge in religious services and observance, religious leaders suddenly taken seriously, candles, shrines, prayers, all the accoutrements of the religion of death. …

“And there was the grief. How we enjoy grief. It makes us feel good, and innocent. This is what Aristotle meant by catharsis, and it has deeply sinister echoes of dramatic tragedy’s roots in sacrifice. One of the effects of the violent sacred around the sacrificial center is to make those present feel justified, feel morally good. A counterfactual goodness which suddenly takes us out of our little betrayals, acts of cowardice, uneasy consciences. And very quickly of course the unanimity and the grief harden into the militant goodness of those who have a transcendent object to their lives. And then there are those who are with us and those who are against us, the beginnings of the suppression of dissent. Quickly people were saying things like ‘to think that we used to spend our lives engaged in gossip about celebrities’ and politicians’ sexual peccadillos. Now we have been summoned into thinking about the things that really matter.’ …”And there was fear. Fear of more to come. Fear that it could be me next time. Fear of flying, fear of anthrax, fear of certain public buildings and spaces. Fear that the world had changed, that nothing would ever be the same again. Fear and disorientation in a new world order. Not an entirely uncomfortable fear, the fear that goes with a satanic show. Part of the glue which binds us into it. A fear not unrelated to excitement.“What I want to suggest is that most of us fell for it, at some level. We were tempted to be secretly glad of a chance for a huge outbreak of meaning to transform our humdrum lives, to feel we belonged to something bigger, more important, with hints of nobility and solidarity. What I want to suggest is that this, this delight in being given meaning, is satanic.  … A huge and splendid show giving the impression of something creative of meaning, but in fact, a snare and an illusion, meaning nothing at all, but leaving us prey to revenge and violence, our judgments clouded by satanic righteousness.

“When I say satanic, I mean this in two senses, for we can only accurately describe the satanic in two senses. The first sense is the sense I have just described: the fantastic pomp and work of sacrificial violence leading to an impression of unanimity, the same lie from the one who was a murderer and liar from the beginning, the same lie behind all human sacrifices, all attempts to create social order and meaning out of a sacred space of victimization. But the second sense is more important: the satanic is a lie that has been undone. It has been undone by Jesus’s going to death exploding from within the whole world of sacrifice, of religion and culture based on death, and showing it has no transcendence at all. … [W]e no longer have to believe it, we no longer have to act driven by its compulsions. It has no power other than the power we give it.

I think speculation about the end of the world enables us to explore death from a safe vantage point, to prepare for it “if” it comes, and mostly, to feel better about our humdrum existence, to feel we are part of “something bigger, more important, with hints of nobility and solidarity.”


Alison goes on in his remarks to offer another alternative:

We are given a very specific and very commanding example of the divine regard: it teaches us to look away, not to be ensnared, to de-sacralize. It is the very reverse of apocalyptic.” … We are tempted to imagine that suicide planes, collapsing buildings, increased security, the unanimity of the rich and powerful, and of course, bombs and more bombs and more bombs, are signs of power. Are creative of a new world order. … But what Jesus suggests is that all that power is a dangerous illusion. His talk is of a quite different power coming, scarcely noticeably, in the midst of all those things, weaning us off our addiction to the sort of crowd desire which makes that power possible and apparently all englobing.

In short, Alison says that fascination with the sacred centre is “a distraction, dangerous to us, but of no consequence to God, a distraction from the real coming into being of an entirely gratuitous, peaceful, creative meaning, and one in which we are invited to be involved.”

For myself, I think the “apocalypse” is ongoing, every day. It’s, literally, the uncovering, the unveiling, the revelation of a world that we can be part of all the time, when we notice that the sacred centre and its attendant grief and drama is a lie; when we resist the temptation of feeling morally good and right, either because of what we do or what we believe, and instead let that go entirely so we can receive what’s freely given; when we look through the illusion of meaning, identity and security that’s gained through violence, unanimity, and sacrifice; when we stop locating evil in others, justifying our own violence, and making distinctions between good and bad violence. When we stop looking for the end of the world as we know it … and just live it.

As Mary Oliver writes:

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:

to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Living in Transition

I could have sworn I had posted something about the idea of “home” in all the years I’ve been blogging, but if I have, I can’t find it now.

deer were here, 28 Jan 2012I was prompted to think about it again this time by my friend Lynn’s class this fall on “a sense of place,” and by another friend, Caroline’s, post recently titled Staying Put, in which she writes, inspired by Wendell Berry: “We can’t love a place until we know it, and we can’t know a place until we are willing to open ourselves to its mystery, its intricacies and complexities, its willingness to invite us into conversation.”

Like Caroline, who calls herself a “former nomad,” I have never stayed put. Many of my friends (including Lynn) have lived in the same house or the same town for 20, 30, 40, 50 years. I think my imagination is pretty well-developed, but I have trouble envisioning what this would be like: to not consider every box that comes into the my piece of sky, 22 July 2012house for its packing potential, to not browse house listings (daily), to know how to get places, to not need to find new grocery stores and hair stylists, to never walk into a new library or church for the first time. To never have to make a complete set of new, local friends. To not feel the delicious, displaced, lonely, and anticipatory burden and freedom of living in someone else’s house and tending someone else’s garden.

I’ve lived in 24 places in 50 years, in 18 towns, in 6 states. I’ve spent another combined (estimated) two years in one- and two-week vacations across the U.S. (focus on Jekyll Island, Rehoboth and Myrtle beaches, New York City), and in the UK, Spain, the Caribbean; and another year or so of summers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, most summer weekends for six years on a lake in central Virginia, a cumulative month in San Francisco with a friend’s dying sister; and another 6 months perhaps on the train, travelling coast to coast several times, to New Orleans 5 or 6 times. I’ve spent some time in every U.S. state except Hawaii, Alaska, South and North Dakota, and Michigan.

I’ve lived in my latest state, town, neighbourhood, house and yard for exactly three years now. For the first two-and-a-half years, I felt like a tourist in this town. In fact, the Marti Jones song, “Tourist Town,” came to mind often as I walked and drove through town: “I’m tempted to hide away / I’m tempted to hide in a tourist town.” I felt hidden in plain view, recogising almost no one and unrecognised by almost all.

hummingbird in penstemon, 23 June 2012And I realised that I liked it, most of the time. A few palm trees, sand, the sound of seagulls, and some ocean would have improved the experience, but on the whole, I appreciated feeling anonymous, invisible, unknown by my fellow townmates. I also appreciate being known (or at least recognised) now. Both states feel deeply healing, in their owns ways.

The social theorist Michel Foucault’s idea of a heterotopia is extremely appealing to me; he speaks of heterotopias as “‘counter-sites,’ places positioned on the … outside of all places … irrelevant to the practical functioning of everyday life.” They might be reserved for “people undergoing transitional crises: adolescents, menstruating women, pregnant women, the dying.”  They can also be places of deviation, where “individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed”:  prisons, retirement homes (idleness is a deviation in our society), psychiatric hospitals.

But they don’t have to be places of abnormal deviation and crisis. They can be cemeteries, gardens, theatres, cinemas, museums, libraries, fairgrounds, festivals, ships … In fact, they can be tourist towns, which remove people from their normal daily lives and which usually exist outside of time and flourish for only for part of the year and then close down.

Some places — gardens, museums, cinemas and theatres, e.g. — juxtapose many shade garden etc, 2 July 2012places or scenes in one place. They may even contain mini-heterotopias and places of transition within them, like a bridge, an archway, movement from a sunlit meadow to a dark forest or from a gallery to an open rotunda. Some, like museums and libraries, constitute “a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages,” while others (fairgrounds, vacation villages) are “absolutely temporal.”

As described by John Doyle at Ktismatics:  “Heterotopias open onto heterochronies —  disjunctures from the evenly spaced and empty continuum of time. Theater time passes differently from the time that surrounds the theater. The cemetery is a juxtaposition of the end of time and eternity. Museums and libraries accumulate past time in a place outside of time. Resort towns exist only at certain times of the year. Entering into a heterotopia often requires a rite of passage: enlistment in the army, arrest and conviction, death, travel. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence” because it is “a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea.”

monarch caterpillar on asclepias, 6 Aug 2012I’m starting to wonder whether my true “home” isn’t perhaps a heterotopia, or some sort of liminal space* I am continually passing through. A wholly unnecessary space, “irrelevant to the practical functioning of everyday life.”

A tourist town, a dis-placed place. No-home. A place removed from ordinary time. A kind of folly.

It’s where I, perversely perhaps, seem to feel most at home. Not “home” in the sense of feeling rooted and attached but rather in the sense of feeling relaxed, satisfyingly connected, most myself, engaged in discovering and exploring the new and mysterious (as Caroline put it, “willing to open ourselves to its mystery, its intricacies and complexities”). I feel paradoxically at home as an unrooted, uprooted stranger passing through a strange and passing land.

I seem to prefer being neither here nor there. Even as I mhosta shoots, 3 May 2012ake each new place “my own” — no matter the USDA hardiness zone, no matter which birds sing in the trees, no matter whether I am in the midst of the most-craved ocean and marsh, or of mountains, lakes, rivers, swamps, meadows, prairie, forests, desert, or tundra — I am aware of the illusion of terra firma, of an everlasting place, this eden.

I think, through practice and perhaps by nature, I have become skilled at inhabiting places in such a way that they feel real to me — real like the smell of fried food and popcorn on the boardwalk, the shriek of gulls fighting over a clam shell, the glare of the high summer sun beating on sand, the warm taste of coconut and pineapple in pretty drinks with umbrellas, the overlay of pop music and oldies coming from every other beach blanket — even as I know that this place too will shutter up when the season is over (though the gulls will remain).

Rehoboth boardwalk at night, 12 Aug 2011

* From Wikipedia: In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning ‘a threshold’) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants ‘stand at the threshold’ between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.”

As Easy As Falling Off A Cliff: Part II

(This blog post began here.)

The second speaker of the day was Matt Slaughter.  He’s Associate Dean of the Tuck MBA program, as well as professor of management there, and economic adviser to the Congressional Budget Office, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, member of the U.S. State Dept’s Advisory Committee on Tax Policy Reform, etc.  More here.

His talk was titled “Is the U.S. Bankrupt? Or ‘Merely’ Dysfunctional.”

The more sobering of the two talks, certainly.

He outlined his talk:
— America’s Fiscal Past, Present and Future
— So, What Do We Do? – Economics
— So, What Do We Do? – Politics and Leadership

Past, Present, Future


General fiscal stability since the end of WWII. A constant outcome in terms of the size of the federal government, no matter what party was president or in control of Congress, no matter what business cycle we were in. In all these years, we were a “18% tax revenue as % of GDP and a 20% spent at % GDP” nation. So we ran at a 2% deficit most of those years.


From 2009-2011, the U.S. ran deficits of 9-10% of GDP per year. Tax revenue is now 15% of GDP, while spending is 25% of GDP. This is historic. Partly caused by the world financial crisis, and the low savings rate in the U.S., which means that much of the run-up to this debt has been funded by foreign interests. Just about half our debt is now owned by foreign private and public interests, for the first time since the Revolutionary War. If international creditors get worried about our ability to repay the debt, we will be in crisis, and it can happen overnight. If they don’t buy our debt at auction (the usual way debt is sold and bought), then either our government will need to make more money or we will need to appeal to other countries’ governments to buy it. Neither is a good scenario.

FY2011 U.S. Revenue = 2.3 trillion
from individual income tax … 1.09 trilion
from FICA tax … 819 billion
from corporate taxes … 181 billion
from other taxes … 211 billion

FY2011 U.S. Spending = 3.6 trillion
Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security … 1.624 trillion
Discretionary spending … 1.223 trillion (800 billion is Defense)
Net Interest payments … 454 billion

Note that non-defense discretionary spending represents 10% of all U.S. federal spending.

Overall, the federal tax code is quite progressive; that is, the five quintiles of taxation increase as income increases. Those at very top levels, though (whose income is alost all from capital and very little from labor), actually pay at a lower tax rate than most people, though. 45% of all taxpayers pay no income taxes at all.

FICA taxes are regressive, at 15.3% on only the first $110 in income. Excise taxes are also regressive.


Retirement of Baby Boomers (born 1946- 1964) will lead to two major and significant problems:

1. Significant increase in entitlements (Social Security, Medicare)

2. Significant increase in per capita health care spending. Healthcare spending has increased in the last 25-30 years much faster than increases in general goods and services.

The Congressional Budget Office sees a dire future without significant changes in government policy. (See handout, 5-page summary of 147-page 2012 Long-Term Budget Outlook pdf, published by CBO June 2012)

Ben Bernacke, chair of the Federal Reserve, says that post-WWII fiscal stability is unsustainable. Entitlements are projected to be 16% of GDP by 2030, which will mean an $11 trillion Social Security shortfall and a $40 trillion MedicareMedicaid shortfall.

It’s both the demographics of aging in this country and the sky-rocketing healthcare costs that are leading us down a dangerous and unsustainable path.

Our choices are three:

1. Massive tax increases

2. Elimination all non-entitlement programs (and Congress can retire)

3. Slashed entitlements

And this is without the current recession; these shortfalls were predicted 20-30 years ago.

If no tax increases, we will be Greece.

Federal Debt Held by the Public, 1912 to 2037

Slaughter showed this chart. The blip up to 100% (debt as percentage of GDP) in 1942-45 was related to WWII. The smaller blip to 50% in 1991-92 was when Reagan increased Defense spending. And the small blip in 2000-2002 was due to greater productivity with the IT revolution.

The CBO predicts that by 2020. debt to GDP will be 100%, and by 2035, it will be 200% and rising, just following the course we’re on now, without recessions, wars, etc.

As reference, at end of FY2011, Greece was at 165.6% debt to GDP. Portugal at 106%, Ireland at 109%, Italy at 121%.  Spain, also considered likely to go under, was only at 67%, and Argentina, the last uncontrolled sovereign default, in 2002, was at 62.5% in the months before they defaulted.

In other words, the U.S. could default at any time. If a nation is perceived as unsound financially, private investors won’t show up to buy debt at debt auctions, which is how countries raise money and stay solvent.

(Japan’s debt to GDP is the highest in the world, at 233%, but the difference is that most of its debt is held by Japanese people, in the form of savings, not by international investors who might stop buying our debt at any time).

What to Do? – Economic

What principles of distributive justice do you think a fair fiscal regime should follow? And how do these principles translate to policies?

Slaughter suggested some principles:

  • Simple – might mean a flat tax, or elimination of deductions
  • Progressive – might mean raising the high-end marginal rates
  • Solve Externalities – i.e., using tax policy to correct imperfect markets, e.g., a carbon tax or increase in the gas tax (gas tax has been $.18/gallon since 1992)
  • Support Growth (labour, investment) – might mean a Value-Added Tax, which all major countries but the US have, to add revenues to the federal government
  • Favour the Young (education, R&D, infrastructure) or the Old (entitlements)?  – might mean cut entitlement spending. [I think investment in better infrastructure, like local and regional public transportation, helps the young and the old]

There is not enough there there to focus on only one or two tax policy items.

To prove this, he gave examples, asking people in the audience to raise their hands if they were willing to do the following, then he gave the 10-year projections for savings:

  • Raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67?  Savings =  $32 billion
  • Raise the Social Security eligibility age from 67 to 70? Savings = $31 billion
  • Eliminate the mortgage deduction? Savings = $75 billion
  • Eliminate deductibility of state and local taxes? Savings = $107 billion

All this adds up to $245 billion, not even a drop in the bucket towards what we need. Yet NO politician is even campaigning on this minimal platform.

Looking at raising taxes on household earners of $250K or more, the story is the same. Roughly 2.5% of households earn $250K or more. Their total adjusted gross incomes are about $1.92 trillion, with taxable income of $1.62 trillion, with taxes paid of $43 billion. Their after-tax income still available to be taxed would be about $1.19 trillion. With a 4% increase in taxation per year, we might get another $50 billion out of them. The deficit last year was $1.3 trillion.

Slaughter’s point is not that we shouldn’t raise taxes on households making more than $250K; it’s that we have to do that and so much more, and we can’t even get off this tiny issue, this drop in the bucket, politically, so there is not much hope.

What to Do? -Politics and Leadership

In 2008, with the failures of AIG Lehman Brothers, we were on the cusp of a worldwide Depression. Bernacke and Paulson asked for a massive fiscal infusion. As the House narrowly voted down TARP (vote was 205-228) on 29 Sept, the world watched the voting on CSPAN and other up-to-the-minute news sources; the Dow Jones lost 770 points in 90 minutes and eliminated trillions of dollars in market value, when investors around the world realised that the U.S. could not come together to do what needed to be done in a crisis.

The future depends on what we in the U.S. do about tax policy, and on whether the Peoples Bank of China (India, Brazil) will buy our debt. Not since the Revolutionary War has the U.S. been so indebted to and reliant on other nations for our fiscal future.

Crises, by their nature, happen when we don’t expect them. They happen overnight, when there is a lack of confidence in the capacity of leaders to find solutions.

Slaughter ended his talk by telling us that he and his wife pay additional taxes into the U.S. Treasury and challenging us to do the same. (Here’s the link to do it.) He believe that paying taxes is a noble action, a shared engagement in the civic culture.


Tim Dickinson (the first speaker) briefly alluded to other countries’ better bang for the buck when it comes to healthcare as part of the Q&A. I just came across this, which succinctly states the financial problem and gives some clues as to places to look for a solution:

“Too Much Medical Care?” by Tara Parker-Pope in the New York Times, July 25, 2012

The numbers are staggering. Health spending in the United States neared $2.6 trillion in 2010 – that’s 10 times the $256 billion spent in 1980. The Institute of Medicine estimates that in 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, the country spent about $210 billion on unnecessary medical services.

Broken down, this means that the United States spends about $8,000 per person annually on health care – that’s about 50 percent more than Norway and Switzerland. In the United States, hospital stays are far more expensive than those in other countries, averaging about $18,000 per discharge, compared with less than $10,000 in Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, France and Germany.

As Easy As Falling Off A Cliff: Part I

Oh boy.

Wednesday was the 3rd in the Dartmouth College ILEAD summer series on Polarization: A Dangerously Divided America, with two one-hour talks, the first by Tim Dickinson of Rolling Stone magazine and the second by Matthew Slaughter, Associate Dean of the Tuck MBA program (as well as professor of management there, and economic adviser to the Congressional Budget Office, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, member of the U.S. State Dept’s Advisory Committee on Tax Policy Reform, etc.  More here. ).

Dickinson’s talk was titled Why Elephants March in Lockstep (see below for notes). Slaughter’s talk was titled “Is the U.S. Bankrupt? Or ‘Merely’ Dysfunctional.” (See Part II for notes, to be posted on 7/28/12)

Both men are energetic and articulate speakers who didn’t use notes.


You can get a sense of some of Dickinson’s talk from this Rolling Stones article, “How the GOP Became the Party of the Rich: The inside story of how the Republicans abandoned the poor and the middle class to pursue their relentless agenda of tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent” (9 Nov, 2011).

What’s interesting is that Dickinson develops his case through two things: hard numbers, and the words of Republican politicians and Republican budget analysts. He interviewed and quotes, for instance, David Stockman, Reagan’s budget analyst; Paul O’Neill, GW Bush’s Treasury secretary (fired by Cheney); Mitch Daniels, GW Bush’s budget director (now governor of Indiana); Bruce Bartlett, an architect of Reagan’s 1981 tax cut; Glenn Hubbard, chair of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers and an architect of GW Bush’s tax cuts; George Voinovich, former Ohio senator; Lincoln Chafee, former RI senator;  and Alan Simpson, former WY senator.  All are Republicans.

He also includes comments from Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel-prize winning economist; Robert Greenstein, president of the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; David Cay Johnston, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Perfectly Legal: he Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich – and Cheat Everybody Else; Robert McIntrye, director of Citizens for Tax Justice; and Grover Norquist, of Americans for Tax Reform.

It’s a provocative article, chock full of historical facts. I highly recommend it.


Dickinson’s talk, Why Elephants March in Lockstep,
“traces from Ronald Reagan to Mitt Romney how the Republican party has abandoned its historic love affair with fiscal balance to embrace the anti-tax zealotry championed (and enforced) by largely unknown Grover Norquist.”

My notes on it (all note-taking mistakes are mine, obviously) follow:

This is not Ronald Reagan’s Republican party.

Eisenhower is the last Republican president to balance the budget (Clinton is the last Democratic president to do so.) He imposed a 91% tax on the top earners.

Kennedy (1963) was the first to use tax policy to try to create growth. He and the Democrats lowered the top tax rate to 77%, feeling that a 91% rate was a disincentive to work or earn income. but this cut, from 91% to 77%, was opposed by GOP House members.

Under Carter, we had stagflation (inflation that hung around). At that time, tax brackets were not indexed for inflation, causing bracket creep: people’s salaries went up, pushing them into a higher tax bracket, but their purchasing power stayed the same or decreased because inflation caused prices of goods and services to rise so much.

The Reagan Era: Irving Kristol strategised that if supply-side economics didn’t work, the Democratic administrations could clean up the mess when it was their turn. (“As conceived by the right-wing intellectual Irving Kristol in 1980, the plan called for Republicans to create a ‘fiscal problem’ by slashing taxes – and then foist the pain of reimposing fiscal discipline onto future Democratic administrations who, in Kristol’s words, would be forced to ‘tidy up afterward.’) This is happening now for Obama after Bush.

Reagan cut taxes in 1981 but even he thought he went overboard. This is from Dickinson’s article:

The Reagan tax cuts spiked the federal deficit to a dangerous level, even as the country remained mired in a deep recession. Republican leaders in Congress immediately moved to reverse themselves and feed the beast. ‘It was not a Democrat who led the effort in 1982 to undo about a third of the Reagan tax cuts,’ recalls Robert Greenstein, president of the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. ‘It was Bob Dole.’ Even Reagan embraced the tax hike, Stockman says, ‘because he believed that, at some point, you have to pay the bills.’

In fact, contrary to the mythology, Reagan raised taxes 11 times during his administration. He was not “allergic to revenue.”

Reagan is also famous for hating tax evaders and for closing tax loopholes. The 1986 tax reform, under Reagan, cut the top marginal rate to 28% by closing loopholes and cutting out corporate tax breaks. It was a bipartisan effort. On paper, it was actually the largest corporate tax hike in history, with corporations now paying much more in taxes than before even though the top rate was lowered.

Americans for Tax Reform was set up then to lock in these tax reforms. Headed by Grover Norquist, whom David Stockman (Reagan’s former budget director) calls a “fiscal terrorist.” Before heading up this group, Norquist worked for the Chamber of Commerce as a speech writer. In 1986, he started asking politicians to take the anti-tax pledge.

Alan Simpson, former WY Republican senator, says of Norquist that he’s “more powerful than the president of the United States.” Simpson asks how anyone can sign this pledge

before they even hear the damn debate.” It makes legislators into robots. Simpson went on to say that Norquist “can’t kill ya. He can’t burn down your house. The only thing he can do to you is defeat you in re-election -– and if re-election means more to you than your country, then you shouldn’t be in the legislature.

The reason the Norquist pledge has power is because of George H.W. Bush, who “won the GOP presidential nomination in 1988 in large part because he signed Norquist’s ‘no taxes’ pledge” while Dole looked like “a vampire had landed in his lap” when asked by Norquist to sign it.

Once in office, however, Bush moved to bring down the soaring federal deficit by hiking the top tax rate to 31 percent and adding surtaxes for yachts, jets and luxury sedans. … The tax hike helped the economy –- and many credit it with setting up the great economic expansion of the 1990s. But it cost Bush his job in the 1992 election…. ‘The story of Bush losing,’ Norquist says now, ‘is a reminder to politicians that this is a pledge you don’t break.’

“Read My Lips: No New Taxes” originally came from Roger Ailes, now chief executive for Fox News.

Under the first Bush, the top marginal tax rate went from 28% to 31%, plus surtaxes for luxury items. Gingrich, who has signed Norquist’s pledge, wouldn’t vote for the tax package, Bush had to negotiate with the Democrats to pass it.

Clinton: Raised the top rates, balanced the budget. From Dickinson’s article:

Rather than simply trimming the federal deficit, as his GOP predecessors had done, [Clinton] set out to balance the budget and begin paying down the national debt. To do so, he hiked the top tax bracket to nearly 40 percent and boosted the corporate tax rate to 35 percent. ‘It cost him both houses of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections,’ says Chafee, the former GOP senator. ‘But taming the deficit led to the best economy America’s ever had.’

When Clinton left office, the U.S. had a massive surplus. Though he seems like a man of excess, he actually was very concerned with fiscal balance.

George W. Bush/Cheney: Cheney was in the driver’s seat from day one on tax policy. The first thing the administration did in 2001 was an across-the-board tax cut, which wiped out the surplus Clinton had left them with. In 2003, they cut taxes on capital gains and dividends again, to 15%. They got rid of “tax harmonization” — “economic jargon for a joint project by the world’s developed countries to shut down offshore tax havens in places like the Cayman Islands” — which Clinton had supported. From Dickinsons’ article:

At the time, such illicit havens were costing U.S. taxpayers $70 billion a year. For Republicans, going after big-time tax evaders should have been as American as apple pie. As Reagan once said of such cheats: “When they do not pay their taxes, someone else does – you and me.”

But for Bush and other leaders of the Party of the Rich, blocking corporations from hiding their money overseas wasn’t an act of patriotism – it was tyranny. Rep. Dick Armey, the GOP majority leader, railed against tax harmonization as an effort to create a “global network of tax police.” One of Bush’s biggest donors, Enron, was using a network of nearly 900 offshore tax hideaways to pay no corporate taxes – while reporting massive profits that later turned out to be fraudulent. In one of his first acts as president, Bush “basically vetoed the initiative,” says Stiglitz.

For the Republicans, tax evasion = freedom. Dick Armey felt it was good for corporations to compete for off-shore tax havens. Couldn’t be a sharper contrast with Reagan.

Grover Norquist was in the wheelhouse of Republican power. He convened the Tuesday Morning meetings of lobbyists, Republican politicians, homeschoolers, et al. to develop the Republican agenda. He positioned himself as gatekeeper from those who wanted to get to Bush. His Americans for Tax Reform helped Jack Abramoff launder money, with the help of Ralph Reed.

From a July 2011 piece in The Nation by Ari Berman:

Norquist “was a central player in the Jack Abramoff scandal, using his connections to launder nearly $1 million from Abramoff’s Indian tribe clients to conservative activist Ralph Reed and Christian anti-gambling groups who were fighting a proposed state lottery in Alabama, according to an extensive report by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. ‘Call Ralph re Grover doing pass through,’ Abramoff wrote in an e-mail reminder to himself in 1999. In return, Norquist’s organization, Americans for Tax Return, took a piece of the cut. ‘What is the status of the Choctaw stuff?’ Norquist wrote to Abramoff that same year. ‘I have a 75g hole in my budget from last year. ouch.’

[Dickinson went through all that in his talk but I thought it was summarised better in the Nation article than in my notes.]

Norquist famously said “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” And “bipartisanship is another name for date rape.”

His strategy was and is to kneecap Democrats, to consolidate power so that he and his Republican cronies are the only name in town for lobbyists.

Switching gears a bit from politics to tax code…

The benefits of increased productivity in the last 35 years have not gone to the middle class. Productivity has gone up 300% in that time and the average wage has increased 2%. From 1997 to 2007, the income of the top 400 richest Americans has tripled, while their taxes paid have stayed the same. Their effective tax rate is in freefall, down from 28% to 16%, the same rate that someone making $50-75K/year pays. The income tax is mostly progressive: From incomes of $0 to $103K, rates rise steadily to about 21% and then stay there. But over $353K, the rate goes down.

The Hidden Side of the Tax Code

With the no-tax pledge, Congress can no longer get rid of tax loopholes (like ethanol subsidies) because they’re considered tax increases, unless proportionately offset.

Discretionary tax spending amounts to $600 billion per year; defense spending is $650b/year; taxes forgiven via loopholes (called “tax expenditure”: “exemptions, deductions, or credits to select groups or specific activities”) amount to $1.2 trillion per year, more than the amount of taxes collected each year.

There is a tremendous amount of money locked up in tax expenditures:

1. Long-term capital gains taxes = 15%. And 70% of the benefit goes to those who earn more than $1 million per year, or .3% of taxpayers. Less than 4% of the benefit goes to those who have incomes under $100K/yr. Over 10 years, this represents a $500b cost to revenue.

2. Step-Up Basis. Capital gains taxes are forgiven on investment assets transferred at death, if the estate is worth less than $5 million. The heirs get the new (current) basis of the asset. So, e.g.,  if a stock was bought for $6/share in 1950 and its owner dies in 2012 still owning it, with its price now $60/share, when the heirs sell any portion of it (if they do), they never pay taxes on the appreciation from $6 to $60; they start with a tax basis of $60/share. Over 10 yrs, this represents a cost to revenue of $700b. Dickinson suggests a policy of “carry-over rates” that keep the original cost basis.

3. Inside Buildup. Whole life insurance allows all benefits to be paid out without any tax. Over 10 yrs, this represents a cost of $260b to revenue. [This actually seems fair to me, as the insurance is bought with after-tax dollars.]

4. Offshore Tax Deferral. Corporate taxes booked offshore are not taxed until they are “brought home.” And there are ways to book profits offshore even though they are made onshore. Over 10 yrs, cost to revenues is $400b.

5. Unlimited Itemized Tax Deductions.  $100 of tax deductions saves a wealthy person $35 but a person of moderate means only $15. Reform could limit the top deduction rate to 28%. (I missed the cost to revenues of this one.)

6. Yachts. The wealthy are allowed to deduct interest paid not only on second home mortgages but also on yachts, if they have a bathroom. Over 10 yrs, cost to revenues is $12b.

7. Accelerated depreciation. Writing off the cost of big-ticket items up front. (I missed the rest of this.)

8. Arcane accounting. How a cost-basis is arrived at (first in, first out; first in, last out; etc.) Over 10 yrs, cost to revenues of $140b.

Policy changes in these areas could come up with $2.3 trillion in deficit reduction without touching any discretionary or defense funds at all.

Then Dickinson played an audio clip of Grover Norquist answering Dickinson’s question: “How do you feel that your pledge takes all these policies off the table?”

Norquist replied “I understand greed and envy. The idea that somebody’s making money and you want to steal some of it? That’s an interesting idea. But it’s not morality. It’s certainly not justice.”

For Norquist, a progressive tax system is the same as theft.

The anti-tax pledge is skewing national and state policies. 1,200 state legislators in California have signed it and have made a rule that a supermajority has to pass any tax increase. So now policy changes and tax increases are going directly to the voters.

Finally, he played another audio clip of former senator Alan Simpson, who spoke about how taxes are the “noble” thing to do to enjoy what we have in America: “People are going to look around in five or 10 years and say, ‘Whatever happened to the things that made me comfortable? That made our streets and schools good things?’ … Whatever happened to common sense?”