Friday, August 24, 2018

Letters From the Earth, Uncensored Writings, Mark Twain

There's the old joke where a recently deceased citizen arrives at the pearly gates; Gabriel asks, Name? Sam Clemons. Um... don't have you on the list. How would I know you? Well, I wrote Life on the Mississippi and other books. Oh, Mark, come on in. In Letters from the Earth, Mark unleashes his impatience with silly belief-without-evidence theology and convention by craftily taking on that persona himself, arguing, in the essay The Damned Human Race, that “the world was made for man and the universe was made for the world – to stiddy it, you know.” That being settled then, the astronomical argument, he moves on to the geologic evidence. This involves a pretty sophisticated use of Darwin's origin theories to argue that the millions of years of development of life, bacteria, cells, etc; was all necessary to lay the ground for man. It is as if just saying it makes it so and therein lies Twain's witty mockery of dogma and uncritical thought, all too familiar to us lately here over a hundred years later.

The critique of fundamentalist religion and convention may account for the 50 year delay in publication though Twain's executor, his daughter, claimed that the material was not up to his standards. True in some cases, especially the first part where an attempt to portray the creator, and his entourage, discussing the mortals, is quite funny in places but cumbersome and ultimately doesn't hold together. It is certainly unfinished. That god rested after creating the universe and concluded that it was good, comes in for some Twain-ism, reminding the maker that mosquitos, rattle snakes, rats, flu, the black plague etc; can hardly be called good. A sketch of Noah's famous Arc is hilarious with all the glossed over problems inherent in a literal reading. Deadly enemies, lethal serpents, lions and lambs all co-housed in a space too tiny by far for the numbers necessary. Feeding, cleanup and other weighty housekeeping went unmentioned in the original tale but not in Mark's. And the maker gets more scolding for his numerous sadistic and xenophobic commands to believers, like those that involve slaughtering all males above age 12 and enslaving the rest of a conquered opponent.

The book is a collection of short pieces. One is on ettiquette, how to behave at certain social functions ie, at a funeral, don't bring your dog. Most helpful is a section on how to decide the order in which to rescue people from burning buildings and what a proper comment might be, depending also on class, both of the rescuer and rescuee. The Great Dark is an exasperating tale about a happy family purchasing a microscope and enjoying the astonishingly enlarged, previously invisible creatures there. Later, waking during the night the family finds themselves on a microscopically tiny ship in the drop of water on said instrument. Only the father realizes where they are. All others see an endless sea, sometimes turbulent, often placid with occasional appearances by grotesque monsters. Eventually the father begins to doubt his knowledge of where he is and eventually accepts the idea that they are on a voyage to the South Pole, and always have been. The transition to this belief is so convoluted that the author himself seems not quite sure what the true situation is. Another short piece, A Cat-Tale, describes the nightly routine at Mark's place, inventing bedtime stories for his children who are encouraged to interrupt with questions which are always wittily addressed.

Not all of this entertainment reaches quite the level of writing and subtlety of Huckleberry Finn but as a look at some of the left-overs of a great writer, it does the job. And from the man who opined, when the U.S. invaded the Philippines in 1898, that the stars and bars should be replaced by the skull and cross-bones, it is great fun to encounter challenges to convention that, radical in their day, stand still relevant to our time. One could possibly conclude that narrow minds not only live on but pretty much dominate across eras... so far.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Battle For Paradise, Naomi Klein


The Battle For Paradise applies the insights Namoi Klein shared in her important book, Shock Doctrine, to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. In what she calls Disaster Capitalism, state actors collude with ideologues and business interests to enact radical, unpopular policies and programs while the populace is preoccupied with some crisis. The Patriot Act is an example, passed during the 911 trauma, as is the dismantling of the New Orleans' public school system and public housing in the wake of hurricane Katrina.

Puerto Rico was already in crisis when Maria struck. The island is essentially a U.S. colony, the inhabitants having no right to vote nor representation in Washington DC, although they have U.S. citizenship. Puerto Rico provided low-wage workers for off-shore factories, attracted also by low taxes. These tax laws expired in 2006 creating a devastating flight of companies to even cheaper labor and tax locales. The government's response was to borrow money. Of course, eventually payback falls due. The next step, as Greece can tell you, is austerity. The U.S. congress passed PROMESA, a law that created a 7-member panel, 6 of whom did not live on the island, to oversee island finances, holding veto power over elected officials. This ploy is not restricted to colonies, it has been used in Michigan by that conservative governor to aid in the general project among the rulers to expand the third world to the whole world. Many islanders refer to this measure as a coup d'etat and the panel as La Junta. Their predictable solutions are privatization of public resources, cuts to pensions and services, schools... the course big capital would have us believe is inevitable and the only road back to stability. Stability always translates into a reassuring climate for the 1%.

Puerto Rico has a history also of resistence. The dictum that, “we are many they are few”, empowering to the many, fearsome to the few, plays out across the planet. The many have strength in numbers, the few have resources to obfuscate, confuse, divide since they mostly control the discussion via ownership of the media, disproportionate influence on government and other institutions. In Puerto Rico's case the many are in various states of economic trauma while the few meet in plush hotels and plan to turn the island into a gated tax haven for the well-heeled.

But not quite all are traumatized. Some of the population came through Maria more successfully than others. While much of the island still lacks electricity, some small areas had solar and this is up and running. Organic farms fared better than the mono crop agriculture that was completely wiped out. These community activists seek alternatives to the corporate way which has rendered the island heavily dependent on food imports and fossil fuel, centralized energy grids. The Battle of Klein's title is here, the capitalist money-chasing, elitist greed enthusiasts - the few – versus the people, an old old story, an ancient struggle, nearly always won by the few... but not always.

Klein has done a video on the subject also, of the same title.