Rainbow of Reading

Reading in a time of plague is more than just a pastime.  It’s an opportunity to learn.  I keep fervently hoping that an occupation might be made out of reading, but those I’ve tried always have many long strings attached, most of them tied to capitalism.  Early on in the social distancing phase, a group in my town began posting children’s stories on lawn signs in the park.  Each sign stands six feet from the last one, and if you linger a few minutes you can take in a children’s book, presumably for the benefit of your child.  Such signs have cropped up in a couple of the parks here in town.  I’m pleased to see the attempts at literacy education continuing.  If anything’s going to get us out of this crisis, it’s going to be reading.

The local library, again early on, began giving away books that normally make up part of the book sale.  Libraries, which have proven their worth over and over, have been doing what they can to get people through the difficult times of loneliness, and in some cases, joblessness.  Those of us who cottoned onto reading at a young age realize just how much problem-solving you can glean from reading a novel.  Instead of encouraging writers, however, the capitalistic system makes agents and publishers interested only in those writers who are deemed to have commercial value.  All the rest, who often find a core audience after their deaths, are left to obscurity since money makes the world go round, right MC?  And yet where would we be without our formative fiction.

I’ve quite often admitted that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is my favorite novel.  I’d always assumed that it was a success but I recently learned that it too was a flop.  At first.  There was little interest in what has become the prototypical great American novel.  Its draw is in the lessons it teaches.  A bit too long to put on signs in the park, it explores what drives some people.  Indeed, for the owners of the Pequod it is money.  But there are more important things.  As the weather has been improving, it makes me glad to see the signs of summer.  The signs posted with books.  While I have no small children to take to the park, I am made happy by the efforts of those who take the initiative to show young people the way out of any crisis.  You must read your way through.

Under Pressure

Cars don’t get driven as much these days.  Working from home does save quite a bit on the cost of filling up a couple times a week.  Cars that sit, however, sometimes get leaky tires.  So wearing a mask like a bandit, I found myself at a local gas station air pump, dumping quarters in for three minutes of air.  As I knelt on the asphalt, I was thinking of when air used to be free.  Gas stations made enough money on fuel that it was considered a courtesy to provide a public compressor.  As gas prices grew from a quarter a gallon (that makes me sound old) to, at one point over three dollars for the same quantity, the petroleum industry became very lucrative.  And they started charging for air.

The idea is what bothers me.  Shouldn’t air be free?  I didn’t grow up a very political kid (that had to come with maturing), but I used to hear adults complaining that soon you’d have to pay for air.  They meant the kind you have to breathe, of course, but that idea stuck.  Air should be free.  All land animals have free access to it, and our biology demands it.  The only difference with this black hose I’m holding is that it has a nozzle that forces said air into a tire valve.  I remember trying to inflate a bicycle tire by trying to blow into it.  No, for that you needed a hand pump, so air wasn’t really free even then.  If there’s a way to charge for a necessity, we’ll find it.  Of course cars pollute the actual air we breathe, so we’re paying double, really.

Gas prices tumbled just as the COVID-19 pandemic began.  I’m afraid I just can’t raise any sympathy for big oil, even if we are on the cusp of the second Great Depression.  I guess I still hope for a government that has some sympathy, and not profits in mind.  Millions and millions are unemployed and all we see is mean spiritedness toward those in need.  If their tires are flat they’ll have to pay for the very air they pump.  And I’m paying four times as much to do that as a gallon of gas cost when I was a kid.  Some things, it seems to me, should just be free.  A capitalist system can’t have that, however, since money must be kept flowing.  Perhaps they should dispense it through pumps.

Cross Quarters

Happy Beltane!  We could use a holiday right about now.  For those of us who are under the spell of intelligent horror, May Day brings The Wicker Man to mind.  Not the remake, please!  I first saw it about a decade ago—my career history has made watching horror an obvious coping mechanism—and I was struck by the comments that the film was a cautionary tale.  One of the problems with being raised as a Fundamentalist is that you tend to take things literally and I supposed that the cautionary tale was against Celtic paganism.  The Wicker Man is about the celebration of Beltane on a remote Hebridean island, and it was only as I watched it a few more times and reflected on it that I came to realize the caution was about those who took their religion too seriously, pagan or not.

Photo credit: Stub Mandrel, via Wikimedia Commons

Lord Summerisle, after all, admits that his religion was more or less an invention of his grandfather.  More of a revival than an invention, actually.  In other words, he knows where the religion came from, and he has a scientific understanding of the soil and how and why crops fail.  That doesn’t prevent him from presiding over May Day celebrations to bring fertility back to the land.  The people, as often is the case with religions, simply follow the leader.  Of course, Beltane is a cross-quarter day welcoming spring.  It is celebrated in Celtic countries with bon fires and obviously those fires are to encourage the returning of the sun after a long winter.  The days are lengthening now.  I can go jogging before work.  The light is returning.

Capitalism, which is showing its weak side now, doesn’t approve of too many holidays.  Like Scrooge they think days off with pay are picking the pockets of the rich.  The government stimulus packages show just how deeply that is believed in this country.  Celts we are not.  So as I watch the wheel of the year slowly turning, and see politicians aching to remove restrictions so that money can flow along with the virus, I think that cautionary tales are not misplaced.  The love of money can be a religion just as surely as the devotion to a fictional deity.  Herein is the beauty of The Wicker Man.  Beltane is upon us.  As we broadcast our May Day it could be wise to think of the lessons we might learn, if only we’d consider classic cautionary tales.

Post-Pandemic

Something I’ve noticed: throughout this crisis business people have been fretting how hard it will be to reestablish everything “like it was” when this is all over.  I wonder if they’re not thinking big enough.  It seems to me that a system as fragile as capitalism is bound to tumble when something suddenly becomes more important than money.  Humans and mortality.  Most people fear death.  Religion, historically, has come to fill in that space, but as we grew more and more confident in our ability to prevent large-scale death capitalism, the real opiate of the people, stepped in.  Make money!  Buy things so that those of us with lots of money will get even more!  We’ll live extravagant lifestyles and laugh at those of you who’ll keep spending to keep us where we are!  Then people stop spending.  Nobody’s laughing now.

Is there not a better way to construct society?  Sure, some means of exchange is necessary, but do we have to give such power to an abstract concept such as money?  Granted, gods are abstract concepts too, but at least they’re spiritual rather than material.  That which is made of mere physical stuff is bound to disappoint eventually.  When our sun balloons out into a red giant, everything we know here on earth will be gone.  The physical stuff anyway.  I know this opens me to accusations of wishful, wistful, escapist thinking—maybe something spiritual will come rescue us—but I assure you it’s not that.  What I’m referring to is meaning.  There’s value in it, and you can’t buy it.

The coronavirus crisis has us all, on some level, asking about the meaning of it all.  God hasn’t intervened, and the numbers are still climbing.  Nature dictates that they will eventually stabilize, and decline.  Our capitalist society, however, is scrambling to figure how to make sure everyone pays their taxes, their bills, and somehow manages to find toilet paper (which is a great investment at the moment).  Are these the bases for meaning in life?  Can’t we do better than that?  Can’t we find a system that values what is truly unique and rare?  Each and every person on this planet.  And some of us would go a step further and include our animal people too.  Life.  Life is value.  Money can be thrown away, as we all know.  Sometimes quite easily.  As long as it lands in the coffers of those with too much, everybody’s happy.  Well, not everybody.  Maybe not even most.  Perhaps it’s a good time to reassess our priorities.

Half of Us

Today is International Women’s Day.  We need to pause a moment and think.  We can’t change the past, but we can improve on it.  I think it’s fair to say that historically—before the Enlightenment anyway—domestic arrangements were the product of evolution rather than intention.  Like religion, however, domestic arrangements have a difficult time keeping up with change in real time.  By the time healthcare improved and women’s chances of surviving childbearing grew, men had become set in their ways.  Even now we still have trouble getting a female on a presidential ballot in “the most advanced” country in the world.  The week before International Women’s Day Elizabeth Warren stepped out of the race.  The rational world is so desperate to get the anomaly out of the White House that it hasn’t really dawned what a lost opportunity this was.

Although for most of history their roles have been hidden, half the advances of the human race belong fairly to women.  Males often have difficulty admitting that they require help, or had any assistance getting to where they are.  In fact, though, we know they had mothers and those mothers helped make them who they were.  Many of them had spouses who kept the situation stable enough that they could go on and follow their preoccupations.  History, unfortunately, would record only the names of the men.  In the western world this was often reflected in the changing of names during marriage.  Domesticity comes with a price, but it can be balanced out.

Capitalism, it seems to me, rewards the greedy.  Instead of evening things out so that those who don’t have the same opportunities can be cared for, our economic system rewards selfishness.  I often wonder if women would’ve been so suppressed had a more humane measure of human worth been adopted.  When I think of billionaires whose names I’ve never heard of before, I always mentally add, “they wouldn’t be billionaires if the rest of us refused to play the game.”  It’s only because we agree to an arbitrary and artificial valuing system that we allow the obscure to “own” far more than the rest of us.  Women, it seems to me, would know the realities of this way better than most men do.  What if the value system we shared measured worth in having had a mother?  It’s something we all share.  Yet in this nation we still haven’t passed the Equal Rights Amendment.  The time has come to ask ourselves what’s really important.  Today should be the answer.

Leaping Years

Maybe it’s just me, but February seems long this year.  Wait, it’s leap year!  But that doesn’t explain it all.  Today may be a gimme—another day in what has already been a long year—but the calendrical weirdness began with the dates of our moveable feasts last year.  Thanksgiving fell as late as it possibly could—November 28.  Since it is the fourth Thursday of the month, and the latest fourth of any day is the 28th, there can never be less time between Thanksgiving and Christmas than there was in 2019.  For those of us who measure time by the days off work we’re allotted, the holiday season felt rushed.  And since New Year’s Day fell on a Wednesday, HR departments all over were scrambling to figure out how to make it a long weekend.  Wednesday is the Easter Island of holiday dates—too far from land to reach any second day.

By the time we could kick up our heels for a weekend it was already two work days into the new decade and business really began in earnest only on January 6.  Epiphany, according to those who follow circumcision-style New Year.  January ended on a Friday, and had this not been a leap year, so would’ve February.  A month with 28 days, after all, is a proper lunar-based one.  The other months were lengthened to stoke the egos of emperors and others who thought they were lords of time as well as space.  But this year we’ve ended up with an extra day of February.  I want to use it well, and as I look at my list of things to get done on a weekend (generally far longer than my list of things that I accomplish in a work week), I begin to think maybe this should be a holiday (and I don’t mean that sexist Sadie Hawkins tradition).  But it’s already a weekend, so HR’s off the hook.  This time.

We could use a few more holidays.  Every January I look at the sparse allocations of days off for the coming year.  There are normally ten of them, spread unevenly across twelve months.  There are long spells when, if you need a mental break from work you have to cash in precious vacation days.  Leap years make the total number of days even longer.  You get an extra work day but not an extra holiday.  Our lives revolve around our special occasions.  Yes, there’s not really a “holy day” to correspond to the necessary intercalary day to help us keep up with the sun.  Still, it feels like a missed opportunity to me.

Hearts are Dark

For the most part, reading introductions to literary works is tedious.  Since this edition of Heart of Darkness was brief enough, and the introduction wasn’t as long as the novel, I decided to follow through.  I’m glad I did.  I’ve read Joseph Conrad’s classic before, but it was helpful to have pointed out before this reading just how much darkness is in the story.  Drawn in by Kurtz’s famous last words, I suspect, many readers make the heart of the darkness the life lived by this contradiction of a man.  An individual who’d set himself up as a deity, and who pillaged the region for his own gain.  A man who wasn’t above using terror to acquire his ends.  An enigma.

But in actual fact, the story is about as full of darkness as an early Bruce Springsteen album.  The story begins at sunset and ends at night.  There is darkness to the Europeans’ dealing with the Africans throughout.  Even Marlow participates in that interior darkness that seems present in all people.  Delivering the deceased Kurtz’s letters to his still grieving fiancée, he meets her as darkness is setting.  He lies about her beloved’s last words, preferring to preserve her feelings than to reveal the truth uttered upon the deathbed.  There are layers of interlaced darkness here and Conrad never gives a definitive statement about what it really is.

We live in dark times.  I suspect that, for someone somewhere, that will always be the case.  The corruption of our government is so blatant and obvious that we seem to have fallen under the shadow that must’ve driven Conrad to pen his novel.  When living in darkness it helps to have a guide who’s been there before.  No matter what evil Kurtz has perpetrated, he’s treated as a god by those he oppresses.  He knows their suggestibility and preys upon it.  Although slavery was no longer (officially) a reality when Conrad wrote, the attitudes—embarrassing in the extreme today—lingered.  Even more embarrassing is the reality that they linger even today.  Not just linger, but assert themselves and then deny that they exist.  This is the heart of darkness, I believe.  We cannot allow others to live in systems that don’t kick money back into our own.  Trade on our terms, with our worldview being the only legitimate one.  Like so many writers, Conrad has been made a prophet by history.  And we all know the horror.

Reading Education

Perhaps like me you’re afraid of the news.  Not because it’s fake, but because it’s real.  Then every once in a while curiosity gets the better of me and I uncover my eyes.  Sometimes you can’t help but see.  With the utter mess we’re in over here, it’s difficult to keep up with news from other countries we know.  I’ve lived in the United Kingdom and I’ve worked for British companies.  Needless to say, I wonder what’s going on over there from time to time.  Lately I’ve been getting auto-replies to my emails to British colleagues stating that they’re on strike.  I asked a friend in the UK about this.  It used to be the professorate was treated with some regard in Her Majesty’s domain.  Not being a financially minded person, I haven’t been aware of how deep or devastating our capitalism-induced recessions and depressions are.  Apparently they’ve been bad enough to derail even British higher education.

Compensation for the professorate has been eroded away.  Their pension plans have been depleted.  Knowing the problems we have over here with professors refusing to retire, I was surprised to learn the UK has the opposite problem—professors unable to afford to retire.  Now, lecturing isn’t physical labor, but class preparation (and committee work) take a considerable amount of effort.  I could see not retiring if it meant lecturing only, but with everything else required, not retiring would be, well, exhausting.  As over here the root of the problem is that higher education is the route into which many smart people are steered.  You’d think it’d be a wonderful problem to have too many highly educated people.  It’s not.  With advanced study comes advanced debt.  And limited employment prospects.

There are nations in the world where higher education is deeply valued.  Where educated people are respected.  Ironically, the nations enamored of capitalism aren’t those places.  The only learning that’s required is how to get money from someone else.  Beyond that, the rest is commentary.  British higher education has fallen on hard times since I read for my Edinburgh doctorate.  Schemes have been put in place to ensure faculty are being productive.  Yes, there are some lazy ones.  The majority, however, pull their weight and then some.  And now they’re being told they must do so until the grave.  No retired professor wants to spend her or his old age bagging groceries at Sainsbury’s.  And so they’re going on strike.  If only the world valued knowledge more than money there might be some news worth reading.

Amendments

Funny thing about freedom of speech.  It doesn’t really exist in a capitalist system.  Words, I suspect the powers that be know, are extremely potent.  Any system that brooks no rivals will insist on silencing dissidents.  And not just on a national scale.  Several years ago I was interviewed by a Catholic magazine for an editorial position.  I was between jobs and this looked like a good fit; in fact, the woman who arranged the interview told me that if this position didn’t work out they’d likely be able to find a different one for someone with my particular skill set.  When the power that was interviewed me, however, he noted that I had a blog.  “If we hire you, you’ll need to take it down,” he said.  It would confuse readers who might think I was speaking for the Catholic Church.  My candidacy did not proceed.

In a job I would eventually get, in academic publishing, a similar concern was expressed.  Although I hold an earned doctorate from a world-class research university, my opinions might be mistaken for those of some true authority.  Problematic.  This issue keeps coming up.  I write fiction and publish it under a pseudonym.  Sometimes I think about coming out of my literary closet, but the issues pour in hard and fast when the door’s opened.  What would those who read my nonfiction (both of them!) think?  Would I discredit myself because I have too much imagination?  What would an academic employer say?  If I ever went back on the ordination track, would a congregation of any sort understand a clergy person who thinks such things?  I get enough flak from writing about horror films.

The fact is, freedom of expression is very, very limited.  Capitalism measures all things by the bottom line and anything that might cause that trend to waver is forbidden.  Lack of team spirit.  If you want to publish, don’t work in publishing.  It’s like saying (if I might be so bold) that you shouldn’t teach if you earn a doctorate, because you might actually contribute to what we hopefully call knowledge.  This dilemma has become an entrenched part of my psyche.  I grew up innocently writing fiction.  I completed my first stories about the age of 12 or 13.  I was eventually groomed for the ministry and so the fiction had to be set aside as one of those “childish things.”  Was it?  Perhaps.  More likely though, it was simply a lesson that I would find repeated throughout my adult life.  Give lip service to freedom of speech, but don’t ever use it.

A Few Days

My fellow blogger over at Verbomania (worth following!) posted a piece on the word Romjul.  In case you haven’t read the post, Romjul is the Norwegian word for the period between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  It’s kind of a liminal period.  Not really holiday and not really not holiday, in northern climes it’s often cold and dark and you don’t feel like getting out to do much.  In many reasonable parts of the world it’s a given that this should be time off from work.  With all the preparation that goes into Christmas and the standard convention of starting the New Year with a freebie, and the fact that the days of the week for the holidays are movable, it just makes sense.  In these developed States, holidays are left to employers.  Mine granted two days off: Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.  What are your choices when they fall on Wednesday?

Romjul gave me a good feeling.  I cashed in a vacation day or two to take some time off.  The years when I’ve worked between the holidays I’ve found nobody in their offices or answering email, and that led to long hours of waiting for the work day to end so that I could actually do something productive.  In America we love our work.  At least employers love our work.  I talked to a young man who had to cut his holiday short to be into work on Monday, December 29.  He’d just returned from an international trip, but his employer insisted he be there.  There was no work he could do because his colleague whose input he needed had taken that day off.  Work is like that.

I recalled a snow day when I had to commute daily to New York City.  New Jersey Transit got me as far as Newark but the trains were shut down from there.  I had to take a PATH train that took me close to my Midtown location.  It was running late.  A woman was panicking about not being on time.  A wise, older gentleman said, “Employers just want you to show up.  They’re not looking for a full, productive day of work.  They just want you to come in.”  I believe he was right.  Employers like to make their puppets jump, no matter if there’s anybody there to watch the show.  In a civilized world, as in much of Europe, we would celebrate Romjul.  If not for religious reasons, then for simple humanitarian ones.  In late December we can all use a week off.

Conversations

Arnold Lakhovsky, The Conversation, via Wikimedia Commons

While I tend not to discuss books on this blog until I’ve finished them, I realize this practice comes with a price tag.  Reading is a conversation.  Your mind interacts and engages with that of another person (or persons, for books aren’t usually individual efforts).  I find myself as I’m going along asking questions of the author—whether living or dead doesn’t matter—and finding answers.  Materialists would claim said answers are only electro-chemical illusions spawned by this mass of gray cells in my skull, only this and nothing more.  The realia of lived experience, however, tells us something quite different.  These interior conversations are shaping the way I think.  There’s a reason all those teachers in grade school encouraged us to read.  Reading leads to an equation the sum of which is greater than the total of the addends.

I’ve been reading through Walter Wink’s oeuvre.  Specifically his trilogy on the powers.  Although this was written going on four decades ago, I’m struck by how pertinent and necessary it is for today.  As he posited in his first volume, the embrace of materialism has blinded us to spiritual realities.  Wink was bright enough to know that biblical texts were products of their times and that simple acceptance of these texts as “facts” distorts what they really are.  He also convinces the reader that institutions have “powers.”  Call them what you will, they do exist.  Throughout much of western history the “power” cast off by the church has been somewhat positive.  Christianities has established institutions to care for the poor and for victims of abuse and natural disaster.  Orphans and widows, yes, but also those beaten down by capitalism.  They have established institutions of higher education to improve our minds.  Until, that is, we start objecting that our improved outlook demonstrates that the biblical base isn’t literal history.

Churches then often fight against those educated within its own institutions.  Ossified in ancient outlooks that value form over essence, many churches take rearguard actions that we would call “evil” if they were undertaken by a political leader such as Stalin or Hitler.  Those evil actions are justified by claiming they are ordained by an amorphous “Scripture” that doesn’t really support those behaviors at all.  I’ve been pondering this quite a lot lately.  Although I taught Bible for many years my training has been primarily as an historian of religions.  I specialized in the ancient world of the northern levant, for that culture provided the background of what would eventually become the Bible.  Reading Wink, I think I begin to see how some of this fits together.  I won’t have the answer—we many never attain it—but I will know that along the way I’ve been engaged in fruitful conversation.

Job’s Jobs

Many years ago, after Nashotah House decided it no longer required my unique outlook, I bought a book.  (That’s my default reaction.)  This book was on how to write killer cover letters.  I don’t remember the title or the author, but I followed the advice, well, religiously.  It got me nowhere.  Business tricks, at least historically, don’t work in academia.  Sitting at home, pondering my sins, I flipped to the chapter on advice to take if none of the rest of this was working for you.  Here’s where the human side began to show through.  Have you been eating onions or garlic before your interviews? it asked.   Do you need to lose weight?  Try dressing nicer.  It occurred to me that the business world lacks the imagination required for denying jobs.  And besides, who was getting any interviews before which I shouldn’t eat garlic?

Business advice is, in a word, shallow.  It assumes that if you’ve got the goods there’s no reason you won’t get hired.  Reality is a bit more complex than that.  I often ponder how people simply go for what they want.  They reach for the biggest piece without pondering the repercussions of their actions.  I see it in my small world of publishing all the time.  Those who are “hungry” (read “greedy”) succeed.  Those who wait behind to help others simply can’t compete.  So the cover letter book did get that part right.  Is it possible, however, to devise a society where everyone fits?  Not all are created equal, perhaps, but do we have to reward those who seem to care only for themselves?  Let them eat garlic.

The cover letter book, in the end, never really did me any good.  I found my way into publishing by being willing to aim low.  I’ve written many cover letters since leaving Nashotah House, and only two ever led to a job.  Those who work in business, what with their concerns about readers’ aromas and weights, seem never to have considered the intricacies of the intellectual job market.  What strikes me as particularly odd is that there are plenty of smart people out there, and yet they haven’t organized to offer alternatives to the greed-based structure on which our work lives are based.  They can’t, it seems, gaze beyond capitalism as a mechanism for helping individuals lead productive lives.  Business operates on the principle of replaceable parts, many of which happen to be human.  And even those who know how to write can’t hope to compete against those who prefer cogs that know to avoid onions.

Pay Per View

One of the things editors can teach academics is that the latter should pay more attention.  Especially to the world of publishing.  An erstwhile academic, I learned to go about research and publication in the traditional way: come up with an idea that nobody else has noticed or thought of, and write about it.  It is “publishing for the sake of knowledge.”  (Yes, that is Gorgias Press’s slogan, and yes, it is one of my hooks—marketing, anyone?)  The idea behind this is that knowledge is worth knowing for its own sake.  Researchers of all kinds notice details of immense variety and there’s always room for more books.  Or at least there used to be.  The world of publishing on which academics rely, however, is rapidly transforming.  Money changes everything.

The world has too many problems (many of them generated by our own species) to pay too much attention to academics.  Universities, now following “business models” crank out more doctorates than there are jobs for employing said wannabe profs, and those who get jobs pay scant attention to knock-on changes in the publishing world.  Just the other day I was reading about “pay per use” schemes for academic writing that, unsurprisingly, came up with the fact that most academic books and articles lose money.  If someone has to pay to read your research, will they do it?  Especially if that research is on a topic that has no obvious connection with the mess we’re busy making of this world?  Probably not.  Publishing for the sake of knowledge is fast becoming a dusty artifact in the museum of quaint ideas.

For those still in the academic sector that means that research projects now have to be selected with an economic element in mind.  “Would anyone pay for this?” has to be one of the questions asked early on.  The question has to be answered honestly, which requires getting out from beyond the blinders of being part of the privileged class of those who are paid to think original thoughts.  Academia has followed the money.  A capitalistic system makes this inevitable.  How can you do business with an institution that doesn’t play by your accounting rules?  And academic publishers, which have difficulty turning a profit due to low sales volume, are bound to play along.  This situation will change how we seek knowledge.  More’s the pity since some of the things most interesting about the world are those that nobody would think to pay to view.

Private Matters

Mercenaries have long been part of human culture.  With some exceptions, people really don’t like to fight to the death meaning that wars have often relied on those willing to fight for pay.  As society buys more and more into capitalism—and capitalism always means you want what someone else has—we’ve had to pay armies to become a massive part of our national existence.  In the United States the military budget is the most massive drain on taxpayers’ dollars, dwarfing all other areas of government spending.  Even Dwight Eisenhower, himself a military man, warned the country of the military-industrial complex.  It was becoming too powerful, he believed.  Knowing better, we continue to spend to curb our fears—generally unfounded.

The other day I was reading about the private military industry.  I didn’t even know there was such a thing.  Yes, I’ve known of mercenaries since I was a kid, but I think was got to me was the word “industry.”  This has apparently now become a legitimate line of work, I suspect with tax breaks and other kickbacks.  What’s more, it’s recognized by governments as a legitimate business.   Perhaps I spend too much time in my own headspace—I am a Bibles editor after all—but I felt like I’d just crawled out from my scriptural rock.  There’s an entire industry where your job is to be a fighting force for hire?  Victory to the highest bidder?  The ultimate, weaponized free agents?  How does that feel?  Mercenaries have often suffered in reputation.  Now we recognize them as just another job.  I guess that’s one way to handle unemployment.

While the Good Book is considered outmoded by many, I do think it has many things right.  One of its most compelling messages is that we should be peacemakers.  We should love one another, seek to help, not to harm.  Nobody’s going to pay a lot for that, however.  War is more profitable.  Meanwhile the education industry—even it can be capitalized—suffers.  We don’t want to pay for cooperative ventures where the entire human race, and other species, might benefit.  That we deem too expensive.  After all, there’s only so much money to go around for bombs and missiles and whatnot.  How are we supposed to protect that which we’ve extorted from others if we don’t have a massive military?  I suppose we could hire freelancers, but then, that costs money.

 

Evolving Tales

There’s nothing like a six-and-a-half hour flight to get some reading done.  I’d made good progress on Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos before leaving for England, but the plane ride gave me time to finish it.  While nobody, I think, can really claim to understand Vonnegut, there are clearly some trends in this novel that demonstrate his struggle with religion.  There may be some spoilers here, so if you’ve been saving this book for later you might want to wait before reading the rest of this.

As the title suggests, it’s a story about evolution.  Charles Darwin had his first divine epiphanies about evolution while visiting the Galapagos during his voyage on the Beagle.  Land creatures isolated from others of their species adapted to the environment in which they found themselves, and over eons passed on useful traits to their progeny.  If humans only had as much foresight!

With his trademark cast of quirky characters about to set out on a cruise from Equador to the Galapagos, Vonnegut has war break out.  Riots and pillaging take place.  Vonnegut takes broad aims at capitalism and business-oriented thinking, and how these represent the devolution of our species.  Of course, being Vonnegut, he does it with wit and verve.  Vonnegut was a writer not afraid to use the Bible in many ways, including what experts would call misuse.  As the surviving passengers make their way onto the stripped, but functional ship, he notes that they are like a new Noah’s ark.  They end up populating Galapagos with humans that evolve a million years into the future.

A thought that caught me along the way was a line where he wrote that in the long history of David and Goliath conflicts, Goliaths never win.  This kind of sentiment could do the world some real good right now.  In fact, although the book was written decades ago, one of the characters, Andrew MacIntosh, reads very much like a foreshadowing of 2016, down to the descriptions of how he regularly mistreats others.  In Galápagos MacIntosh gets killed during a rebellion, showing that grime doesn’t pay.  The cruise goes on without him.  Galápagos is a book that points out the evils that our system encourages, or even necessitates.  There can be another way.  The survivors land on the barren islands and set about adapting because they have no other choice.  A more egalitarian scenario evolves largely because females are in mostly charge.  While not intended as an actual solution to social ills, Galápagos is nevertheless not a bad guide, especially when shipwreck seems inevitable.