Who Cares?

America’s all about money.  I read quite a bit about care-related exhaustion, and being in a situation where several family members are requiring care I’ve begun to notice that our government just doesn’t care.  Talking with a family member recently, his exhaustion was clearly evident.  Not affluent, he has to care for a spouse with Alzheimer’s and continue to work ten hour days because nobody pays you simply to help another human being in need.  Care can be monetized, of course.  Then Republicans sit up and take notice.  Until then, however, I try not to be overwhelmed by what is clearly a growing crisis.  Some call us the “sandwich generation”—we support our children longer as more and more jobs become obsolete, and we care for our parents longer as lifespans extend and extend.  For the working poor, the benefits do not keep pace with life expectancy.  And what child wants to see his or her parent suffer?  Why doesn’t our government care?

Instead of devising new ways to deal with a massive crisis (I know many people who are constantly running on empty from having both to caregive and to work), Washington tweets about how the wealthy are the objects of “witch hunts.”  Those with too much are so oppressed, but they just can’t see their way to share what they have.  Meanwhile even those of us with educations find ourselves not knowing what to do.  Politicians play their games forgetting that the pieces they move about the board are alive and sentient.  After all, there’s only one king on each side.  And who feels too bad if a pawn or two gets bumped off, as long as the monarch is kept safe?

There are solutions.  Not perfect, of course, but societies with a dash of socialism realize that if those on the bottom can’t do their jobs, those on the top will tumble too, when the foundation fails.  Any builder knows the importance of secure footings.  One guy, often cited by the GOP but never really listened to by them, said houses built on sand fall.  Giving care takes time, money, and energy.  Employers want those exact same things and should you fail to provide them, you will find yourself also requiring care.  Even if your reason was that you were caring for another.  Meanwhile policies will be made to favor those who line the pockets of the political.  Who cares?  Certainly not the officials we “elected” to “lead” us.

Rich Rule

The perils of plutocracy should be obvious, but clearly they’re not.  This is somewhat ironic among its biblical fan base, which seems to be where the GOP draws its energy.  As the truth about Brett Kavanaugh becomes public knowledge, his religious supporters dig in their heels and blame the victims.  As one of the many who grew up far from privilege I found Shamus Khan’s analysis in the Washington Post eye-opening.  Khan makes the case that those who grow up in rich families and attend the “best schools” are endowed with the constantly reinforced message that the rules do not apply to them.  They can get away with things that others cannot and, in general, they are let off the hook for things that lead to imprisonment for other citizens.  What’s surprising is the Bible-thumpers applaud this.

It also explains more than Kavanaugh.  Trump is also a child of privilege and his entire term in office so far has been one of personal exceptionalism.  Many actual presidents were impeached or censured for acts far less offensive than those 45 commits.  The wealthy, however, are not held accountable.  Where is the Bible when we need it?  The Good Book is no friend to those who enjoy great riches.  In fact, one of the most constant refrains of Scripture is that against the privileged.  With great wealth comes great responsibility—the obligation to help those less fortunate.  The idea of getting away with what you can is hardly evangelical.

If the literalists can overlook the misuse of wealth, it is still more surprising that they can pardon lying.  Since the rules do not apply to the privileged, their own narrative bears the conviction of righteousness.  They can’t have made a mistake since their money proves them right.  Morality can be counted in dollars and cents.  It is for those of the underclasses to come up with high-minded ideals and hold themselves to them.  Wealth is its own justification.  Back in the days when America was young, the French lost patience with governance by the elites.  But then, the Fundamentalist class didn’t have much of a voice then.  It was the Age of Reason.  An Age out of which we’ve apparently grown.  Fake news, alternative facts, heavy-drinking frat boy justices, and women-groping presidents.  Can we not see the parallels with the other great plutocracy of the Roman Empire?  Ironically, it survives today only in the form of the church it sanctioned.

Kings and Fiends

Martin Luther King Jr. was, and is, a symbol of hope. This day, as we’re encouraged to think of progress, we’re mired under leadership that less than a week ago used derogatory language to describe people that aren’t white enough for his liking. Those who, like King, have a dream, are under attack by a government that has pledged its allegiance to the dollar. The dollar in the hand of the white man. From the days of the prophets on the dream of a just and fair society has been the ideal. Instead we find ourselves under the ultimate party of privilege that likes to quote the Bible but which admires Pharaoh far more than Moses. They claim to see the promised land, and that land belongs only to them.

I was too young, as a seminary student, to appreciate I was walking the same halls as Dr. Martin Luther King. Sitting in the same classrooms. It had all been before my time. Because of the Bible I first took an interest in history—eager to learn how we’d come to this place. Ronald Reagan—who now amazingly seems rather benign—was making it difficult for the poor by promoting “trickle down economics.” We all saw how that worked. The modern-day Pharaohs may not wear the impressive headdress of antiquity, but they’re no less fond of owning slaves. King understood that non-violence comes with a cost. It takes time. Unlike the present administration, he understood the difference between right and wrong.

The Pharaoh in the White House makes it difficult to appreciate any progress at all. We have come to see what it means to be a nation that solely, utterly worships Mammon. The voice of the Bible is weak and shouted down by those who see no gain in it for themselves. There were surely those in Egypt who were poor but who appreciated the Pharaoh. At least he was enslaving those from somewhere else, according to Exodus. According to the Good Book it was God himself who opposed this system, but now, according to the evangelicals, God has blessed it. It is the will of God to rob the poor of their health care so that the rich can add even more to their too much. On this Martin Luther King day we struggle to find hope in such a world. The hope is there, but we have to be willing to dare to dream.

Bible Practice

In a strange kind of oneupmanship, the horrendous murders in Sutherland Springs overshadowed the story of Scott Ostrem’s multiple shooting at a Walmart in Colorado. Ostrem apparently shot at random and killed three people. No motive is known, but when his apartment was searched a stack of Bibles was found. Plenty of people have Bible stacks in their houses—I know I do—but the odd element here is guns. The “reasoning” behind the NRA’s convoluted logic is that guns are for self defense. Everyone ought to have them, along with their Bible stacks. When those voices in your head begin to speak, which you grab—gun or Bible—may make all the difference. Fact is, you don’t have to be mentally stable to buy guns. And no matter how much the NRA says you should shoot back, guns in the hands of madmen obey no rules.

Trump promised to make America great again. One of the statistics at which we excel—indeed we’re a world leader—is gun deaths. We also do pretty well at opioid overdosing. Politicians can’t seem to figure out that the underlying causes here are related to the society they’ve built where you can’t ever get ahead and no matter what you do the 1 percenters will get richer while you spend your days struggling to get to the point when you can climb back into bed and sleep it off until it all starts over again. Watch them in congress. See them trying to thrust more money upon the wealthy. See them pocket the funds the NRA so generously offers. And then read the statistics. Some inexplicable disconnect exists that no amount of drugs will bridge. We are a hurting nation. And stacks of Bibles aren’t the answer.

A Bible stack in its natural habitat

In antiquity there was an ideal. Not that it ever existed in practice, but at least they had the idea. The ideal was that there was nothing wrong with wealth as long as the wealthy first ensured that everyone had enough. Then they could go on an accumulate as much as they wanted. The problem of course is that nobody knows what enough is. When do you know that you have enough? Today there’s no ceiling cap. Take your pick: money, guns, drugs, Bibles. You can have as much or as many as you wish. In just about any combination. Any combination that doesn’t involve money. Only the 1 percenters should be entitled to that. And the rest of us here below and fight it out over the remaining three.

The Rights and Privileges

Bostonia is but one of several alumni magazines that makes its way to our humble apartment. Between my wife and I we have many colleges and universities begging us for money while offering us no jobs. Despite being a denied professor I have little time for magazines. I’ve always been a book man. If I’m going to put time into something I want an ISBN to claim at the end of the day. Still, the cover of the Bostonia asks a relevant question: “Should Chimps Have Human Rights?” I have long argued, based on books I’ve read and on personal experience, that animals are conscious beings, like we are. If consciousness evolved, it has to have its roots in other animals, otherwise scientists are positing “special creation,” call it what you will. If animals share consciousness, they should share rights.

People have used animals for as long as they could figure out how to do so. It may have been a two-way street at first, since we’re pretty good at protecting critters we find valuable and who doesn’t like a free lunch? They stick around us. The earliest domesticated animal seems to have been the wolf, which we made into a dog. Other common mammals joined the mule train after that. Humans: they treat you rough, but they’ll make getting food a snap. There’s a kind of consciousness involved already, don’t you think? If they can’t figure out that we’re not going to harm them (at least not yet) then they’re smart enough to keep their distance. Not all wolves became dogs.

Primates, however, are a special case. They sort of look like us. Chimpanzees, especially, act like us. They don’t get human rights because those are reserved for others of our own species. I mean, consider those in charge of the free world! They believe in the right to acquire as much of the world’s resources as they can for themselves. They guard the use of those resources so they can live in unutterable luxury and make everyone else pay through the nose for the very necessities of keeping alive. The masses pay taxes while those who have more than enough do not. We are a domesticated species, it seems to me. Don’t get me wrong—I do believe chimps should have human rights. Other animals too. We’re all connected. But the real question I have, looking at the headlines from Washington, DC, is turned the other way around: should humans have the rights of chimps? Don’t ask me; universities won’t hire my likes when others will bring them greater glory. They’ll gladly accept my money, however. It’s their right.

Who Cares?

With all the petitions going around I’m getting a bit dizzy. I won’t go to the doctor though, since I think Trump may be a pre-existing condition. In any case, seeing all these petitions gives me an idea for one of my own. I suggest a petition that says members of congress should not have a health plan. Now wait, hear me out—I’m not vindictive, just practical. Apart from the fact that some of them have been kept alive and active well past their sell-by date, these are people who are supposed to represent us, right? How can they represent what they don’t understand? For a few years after being sent down from Nashotah House I had no medical insurance. Cobra was rightly named because it was more fatal than a bite of its namesake snake. If I had anything go wrong, well, dying was always an option. How many of our “representatives” understand that? When’s the last time they had to stick their fingers between the seats on a public bus to look for change? It’s far easier to pull it out of your constituents’ pockets.

Like everything out of the White House since January, this hasn’t been thought through. Let’s see if I’ve got this right: the rich want tax breaks so they take away the healthcare of the poor people who work in their factories. The poor people die. They can be replaced with cheap labor from south of the border, but we need to build a wall to keep them out. And all of this is going to cost quite a bit so we have to tax the poor people to pay for it. Wait, the poor people are dead. Look, guys, you’re not rich unless you have someone to compare yourself against. I’ve never been to the country club but I bet it’s pretty hard to putt if your green looks like my front lawn.

Hm, death may be a pre-existing condition…

If the government wants to lead, it needs to consist of people like us. That’s why I say we should petition the members of congress to forego their own health care. The day after the House vote I had an email from my Republican representative. He said, “Don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for it.” Well, we live in a day of government-sponsored prejudice. All Republicans are alike. Enjoy it while you can, 45 sycophants. Midterm elections are coming up and I’m going to send a petition to the newly elected Democratic majority. If I’m feeling faint in the meantime I’ll just put my head between my legs. That’s what our elected officials are doing.

Heal Thyself

One thing we can say about the misguided leadership of this country is that they’re taking the Bible seriously. As the Republicans roll out a “healthcare” plan that would leave the elderly and poor at the mercy of the rich—known for their compassion—they’ve clearly displayed their belief that the followers of Jesus who voted them into office will once again rely on the carpenter from Nazareth for their healing. Those of us who’ve spent more than a few devotional hours with the Good Book may be a little less sanguine about the prospects for our aging parents (and let’s be honest, none of us is getting any younger). I guess we can call “Trumpcare” a blatant trumpet blast for the Second Coming.

It truly amazes me that Trump supporters don’t see the shady practices of the age-old business deal at work here. Cut my costs, offer you something that you don’t really want, and walk away looking like the guy who was only trying to help. As Kenny Rogers reminded us decades ago, you’ve got to “know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.” Only folding’s not on the table any more. If enough dissatisfied people die off in the next couple of years you won’t even have to worry about midterm elections, I guess. As a member of the human race who’s watched my elders age I don’t see how anyone could ask to have the healthcare taken away from their parents. But then again, this will save the uber-rich in this country quite a bit of money, so there must be a silver lining after all.

It’s unfortunate that nobody seems to care that irony is in such short supply. Presidential campaigns waged on hate deliver when it comes to taking away the services of those who voted them into power. Swamp dwellers all. A healthcare bill to make our country sick and weak—who could’ve thought of such a stroke of genius? You’ve just got to trust the rich to have everyone’s best interests at heart. Isn’t it clear that they always do? I often see them hobnobbing with the people who live in cardboard boxes on the streets of Manhattan. I seem to recall a guy with a reputation for healing once saying something about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into his hospital. Only he didn’t come up with a healthcare plan before he left. Does anybody have Jesus’ smartphone number?

The Big Chill

It’s cold. It may not be Alaska, or even Wisconsin, but I can’t feel my fingers and the temperature hasn’t risen above freezing all day. New Jersey doesn’t get the incredible chills we used to experience in Wisconsin, but I’ve been outside going on two hours and I really need some warmth. And it’s not just me. At least a couple hundred of us are out here and it’s not for the Super Bowl. It’s for justice. We’re rallying at the beautiful courthouse of Somerset County, in solidarity with our Muslim Americans, protesting the latest actions of our own government. Some of the people here are old enough to remember Hitler. Others are young enough that they have to be held. We are from countries all over the world. We are saying “No!” to the evil that is coming out of Washington.

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Those who voted for Trump out of a sense of fiscal conservatism were sorely misguided. This was a hostile takeover of what used to be a democracy by people who rely daily on alternative facts. Who make up massacres that never happened. Who claim that their personal billions have made them victims. Who believe that men have a God-given right to determine what women can do with their bodies. Who state that men who aren’t attracted to women or women to men are somehow deviant. Who openly mock the disabled. Who resist Black Lives Matter. Who can’t tell you one of the five pillars of Islam but can tell you that they’re all wrong. A government that’s over the people, despite the people, and against the people. Self-serving, self-enriching, and self-satisfied. A government where party has become more important than the welfare of the nation. A government that lost the popular vote by nearly three million, and those were only the ones who bothered to get out to vote. A government that lays its hand on the Bible and lies. That prays for itself, not for the good of its people.

That’s why I’m out here in the cold. I’m standing in a crowd that, like those who gather at airports, courthouses, and city streets, is saying “Enough!” The abuse of power is taking advantage of what you can “legally” claim without regard for the will of those you represent. Representative government fails when it fails to represent the people. We don’t want to be out here freezing our fingers, noses, and toes. We’d rather be comfortable and warm at home. As chilly as it may be in New Jersey tonight, it’s colder in the heart of this country and unless we the people do something, Hell itself is in real danger of freezing over.

Holiday Season

Now that the holiday season is upon us, I stop to think about what holidays really do. “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs have popped up like winter dandelions as Trump signs consider to litter the landscape. Thanksgiving, however, gave me the opportunity to forget about all of this for a while. The culture of signs. Signs telling us we must bow down and worship. The holidays signal a season when it is okay to hibernate and forget that more powerful forces out there may wish you harm. Part of the trouble is that those who are coming sometimes can’t see beyond their own interests. Perhaps what I do for a living conflicts with the job I’m paid to do. Conscience dictates that one or the other must go. But conscience is such an old fashioned idea.

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The holidays start with Thanksgiving, but it is now the Monday after. Those in liturgical traditions of Christianity will note that we are in Advent, a season of anticipation. I do wonder what we’re anticipating. Perhaps it’s because Thanksgiving came and went in a blur of travel weariness this year. The few days when commuting wasn’t an issue were the opportunity to stay still for a while and not look at news feeds and reflect on all we’re thankful for. I started hearing Christmas carols in stores shortly after Halloween. We’re entering the season of money in a country in love with lucre. Take a close look and see what lies in that manger.

Most years the stretch of dark months of November through January are accompanied by a sense of peace. Human beings loving each other and getting along. I guess I’ve been away from the news for a few days. I know there was a Black Friday last week. I also know that money has a strange way of funneling upward, a kind of osmosis of Mammon. On my quiet strolls I wonder what we, as a country, truly value. On the highway stuck in traffic with thousands of others returning home, I try to think that in these metal shells are living, breathing, loving human beings. Many of them only trying to get ahead. We’re all in a rush since there’s so much to do before we allow ourselves another holiday. Wouldn’t life be better with more days for reflection? I’d rather not politicize the holiday. Keeping Christ in Christmas seems to be asking for one not to forget the offering plate. I’m wondering about those sleeping in the street not far from Trump Tower. I’m wondering what ever became of conscience.

History and Its Discontents

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I’m standing in the lobby of the Menger Hotel. Before history becomes too falsified to recognize, I want to soak up the fact that Theodore Roosevelt organized his Rough Riders in this very hotel, and that O Henry stayed here. There were other notables too: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee among them. Southern and Northern supporters, Republicans and Democrats, writers and fighters. Once our country was big enough for everyone. I have a feeling that narrative history will be rewritten. I don’t think they make them like Teddy Roosevelt any more. A rich man who actually did care for the poor. There was a day when such things could be said without a wink and a nod. Before “In God We Trust” was inscribed on paper money, confusing forever deity and dollar. I breathe deeply. History weighs heavily upon me here.

Those of us who study ancient religions can’t help looking backwards. There is a consolation in it. Before progress also becomes a myth, I can stand here and gaze back into days when those who were presidents actually read. Theodore Roosevelt wrote books. He believed that the rich had serious social obligations. He had no words of complaint when his nephew Franklin Delano decided to join the Democratic party to become the president who saw this nation through the Great Depression. Today we stand on the cusp of an even greater depression. Or the Great Oppression. At least the incoming administration won’t need to stay in drafty old hotels. They’ll just built tasteless modern ones and say that they’ve always been there. Post-truth is the only truth now.

“The Gift of the Magi” tells the story of a doomed trade. A couple each sacrifices something they value to give the other a gift that they cannot use due to that very sacrifice. It’s kind of like electing a president out of spite. Like cutting off your hair when your Christmas present will be expensive brushes. Like believing that having money equates to intelligence. I hope there’s still something of Teddy Roosevelt left in this hotel. A sense of greatness that didn’t need a red cap to make itself appear as a lover of people. Roosevelt didn’t flinch from insults. He delivered a campaign speech after having been shot by a would-be assassin, bullet still lodged in his chest. He wasn’t a perfect man, but he believed sincerely in the obligations of the wealthy. I want to inhale that history before all of this becomes just another piece of fiction for an administration that doesn’t believe reading to be fundamental any more.

Are There Not Workhouses?

dickensworkhouseAs colder days settle in I add layers and sit in our under-heated apartment and think about the lot of the poor. I don’t think billionaires really understand the plight of those who, no matter how hard they work, just can’t get ahead in a society that values class above individual welfare. I’ve noticed the increasing number of homeless on New York City streets. Many are clearly those who’ve lost jobs and can’t afford to pay the rent of even a modest apartment in the city, let alone Trump Towers. Having lost jobs myself after a lifetime of hard work, my sympathies are with the street dwellers. Ruth Richardson’s Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor reminded me that this is not just an American phenomenon. The book begins as kind of a detective story to locate the workhouse that Dickens features, if fictionalized, in Oliver Twist. Richardson makes a strong case that this workhouse has been found and that relics of Dickens’ under-acknowledged London residence just a few doors down from it influenced much of his first-hand knowledge of the life of the poor.

In the case of London, poor laws were put in effect to punish those who couldn’t fend for themselves. Inmates at poor houses were kept on a legally mandated starvation diet (literally) with inadequate medical care. Instead of censuring this injustice, the Church of England stood behind it. The perverted thinking was that if anyone knew how bad it was in such places they would try doubly hard not to be poor. The funny thing about living in poverty (I have some experience of this) is that it isn’t a choice. I didn’t particularly get along with my step-father. I can say, however, that he was one of the hardest working men I ever knew. Long hours spent at work, sometimes the whole night through, to support a family of six on just above minimum wage. This was his daily existence. I must’ve looked soft in his eyes.

Richardson’s book, although fascinating, is also distressing. The idea that a society thinks the most humane way to deal with those who are struggling is to punish them further, for me, defines evil. One of the characteristics of our species, according to biologists, is that humans often show extraordinary care for other creatures, often of other species. For our own, however, we feel that if you’ve “earned” something by exploiting others it is your “right” to keep it and let them suffer. This economic system is rotten to the core. We may have come a long way since Dickens’ time. We don’t have such exploitative workhouses in Manhattan. Instead, we have so many people sleeping in the streets that a walk to work has become very Dickensian indeed. Somehow I don’t see the situation improving in the next four years.

Final Frontiers

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Is there such a thing as an existential illness? Answer that if you want to, but it’s rhetorical. I’ve been voting since 1980 and I’ve taken my fair share of bruises in the process, but this time my soul feels as if God has hung his “gone fishin’” sign on the pearly gates for good. I am ill. Maybe it was the ebullience that came from having eight years of progress where, although things weren’t perfect, they were sort of holding steady. I’ve always considered myself a populist. I don’t know how a billionaire can convince millions of people he’s one. To be populist you’ve got to be one of hoi polloi. Growing up poor, I took my licks then and I’m still taking them now. No, this wound goes deeper than the bone. Deeper than the viscera. It’s an existential illness.

All things considered, I don’t write too much about politics on this blog. All my adult years I’ve been an unapologetic Democrat. I confess to having grown up Republican. But I believe in the fair treatment of others. I know not everyone will or can be happy. I also know that it’s wrong to denigrate anyone because of their gender, race, orientation, or physical ability. Seems to me that our country was sort of the final frontier where you could go if you believed this kind of thing. Where can you go from the final frontier? There are no other land masses to discover. Maybe if I put on enough layers, Antarctica might not be so bad. Beyond that, where can one go to be a liberal in a world that desperately need some heart? Where money isn’t the measure of all things. Where Mom is right just as often, if not more than, Dad.

It’s a strange thing, this existential illness. Politicians are already cooing their pleasantries, as if nothing more than a slight upset occurred. It seems to me that whenever there’s an upset the popular vote disagrees with the electoral college. It also seems to me there should be a place where the wealthy aren’t considered better by virtue of their material status. I have this existential illness, but I can still dream. Is there a way forward from here? Sometimes I think I can see that horizon where all people are treated fairly and equally, and sometimes the sun seems to be rising over that horizon. Today I feel motion-sick from being jolted backwards. I’ve been disappointed before, but I don’t remember it hurting this badly. If anyone knows a good existential doctor, please pass along her name.

The Least of These

Despite criticisms to the contrary, the pre-Reformation church did have concerns about the average person. About the poor. In those days church offices commanded a good deal more esteem than they currently do among the populace, and being a priest was a position of power. The concern for the quotidian human—at least of the Christian variety—was demonstrated in All Souls’ Day. Although the date migrated around the calendar before settling on November 2, it came part of one of the very serious (days of obligation) annual celebrations along with All Saints’ Day, November 1. It was recognized that not everybody could be a saint, and all the faithful departed deserved a special day of commemoration. Through a complicated history this two-day celebration came to be associated with Celtic beliefs about the crossover day between worlds, samhain, giving birth to Halloween. It seems appropriate on All Souls’ Day to think about the poor.

An article in the Washington Post reports on findings that poor children, in their words, “that do everything right don’t do as well as rich kids who do everything wrong.” There are indeed deficits that attend the poor all their lives. Those of us who began in such circumstances can sometimes break through in a system that favors the upper classes, but it is rare. Good paying jobs are reserved for friends of the wealthy or to those who might pay them back in some way. The poor have little to offer beyond their souls. Our system, the so-called “free market” deals in souls. The poor are, make no mistake, chattels. Even in higher education, where we’d like to think thinkers think, positions are granted based on privilege. The loftier music and liturgy is, after all, reserved for All Saints’ Day.

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Like many raised in humble circumstances, I grew up hearing about the American dream. If you work hard you can succeed. But that really depends on who you know and how much they’re willing to help out. Stats are now beginning to back up what those of us who have lived experience in the lower register already knew. Having faced it throughout my career, I know I’m not alone. Just the other day I met someone else who grew up poor who’d hit the bullet-proof ceiling carefully installed by children of privilege. Not ambitious beyond desiring the basic comforts of a job that covers the bills and allows for some reasonable amount of surplus against lean times is, it seems, more than the wealthy are willing to grant. After all, All Saints’ must come before All Souls’, for even Heaven has its hierarchies.

Ritual Rent

Rituals frequently outlive their purposes. Some skeptics may claim that rituals—particularly of the religious sort—really don’t mean anything at all, but in fact they do. Rituals have logical origins, or at least that seemed logical at the time. Atlas Obscura ran a piece by Sarah Laskow on “London Is Still Paying Rent to the Queen on a Property Leased in 1211.” Such a story invites commentary on many levels. One is that the items payed in rent—6 horseshoes, an axe, a knife, and 61 nails—don’t seem to be commodities her royal highness actually needs, or could even make use of. Still, it’s easy to see how this ritual rent has a logical origin. Axes, knives, nails, and shoes for six-legged horses were all quite practical in the Middle Ages, one assumes. They won’t help you get onto the internet any faster, though, so one wonders how they might be of use now.

Another question a story like this raises is that of government itself. Rulers both in monarchies and democracies have a habit of skimming off the top. It’s been some time since we’ve had a president who purchased his own loaf of bread or could even guess how much it costs the rest of us to do so. In Britain the question may be even more salient—the royal family is among the richest in the world and yet they still take an axe, a knife, horseshoes, and nails for a property that, as the article states, nobody even knows where is? I guess it’s the price we pay for feeling safe under the watchful eye of those who already have too much. The property itself may be a legal fiction, but the payment is real enough.

Wonder what the rent on this place is?

Wonder what the rent on this place is?

There are those who declare rituals empty, and therefore meaningless. To me that seems a hasty judgment. Our rituals reflect what we’ve historically believed. Those beliefs may have changed over the years, while the rituals continued in their own way. But they are reminders. Reminders of something once held to be significant enough to take time and resources in order to ensure the smooth running of—in the case of religious rituals—the universe itself. On the smaller scale, however, our secular rituals contribute to a system that always has favored the rich. It likely always will. You see, rituals are not easily broken. And even if all they can extract are items of little practical use, those who already have will be glad to accept even more. This is the reality behind rituals and rites.

Thousand Words

I could easily spill a thousand words, but I have no picture. You see, as a tuition-paying parent I seldom carry cash—pin money is a luxury I just can’t afford. I saw the perfect photo-op, but had to walk on by. On my way to work I saw a homeless man in Manhattan. That’s not so rare. In fact, it’s distressingly common. This man had written a sign: “Give me $1 or I’ll vote for Trump.” It was followed by a tasteful laughing face emoticon. Old school. On paper. I would gladly have paid him a dollar to take a picture, but I had no money on me and I was left to remember and ponder the implications of a statement that struck me as rather profound.

boweryrm

It isn’t at all strange that the homeless have a sense of humor. There’s a deep, deep irony that pervades a nation where even those who follow all the rules end up finding themselves unemployable. Exploitation is the new capitalism. What surprises us is when these dehumanized economic units show they have feelings. I try to read the many signs the homeless write. They’re not so different from me. I’ve sat on the other side of the desk and been told that I’m just not quite what the employer wants. These affable commodities sit on their shelves, expiration dates passed, trying to raise a smile. Perhaps open a wallet. Their stories could be written down, but who would buy such a book? Nobody likes a downer.

The nature of the sign’s threat is worth considering. The dismal science tells us that it’s all about goods and products that change hands. One fervent disciple of this crooked system wants to be our president. He doesn’t pay any taxes, but he’s never had to live in a cardboard box like so much breakfast cereal. And this poor man in front of me is casting the most noteworthy threat that the disenfranchised can—he’ll vote for this travesty if we don’t pay him. The fine interplay of threat, extortion, fear, hopelessness, and humor tell me that I’m in the presence of a man who has a valuable contribution to make. More valuable than that which is being offered to us by the guy who’s been benefitting from our dimes for nearly two decades while giving nothing back. And if I had a single, or even a five, I’d be glad to exchange it for a photo to remind me of what a true American looks like.