Wednesday, October 8, 2008

“Seeking Salvation”

Let me preface this treatise by making it clear that I do not believe there is any scientific or empirical evidence that clearly establishes the existence of God. Further, I am not advocating adherence to any particular set of religious beliefs. That is a private matter and, in the final analysis, boils down to what one chooses to believe. I am no different.

I came from a family that, for the most part, did not subscribe to any particular religious doctrine. However, as tenuous as that commitment might have been, I think I can safely say their beliefs were rooted in Christianity.

The only one whose religious convictions were rock-solid was my Grandmother. She came from a long line of devout Baptists, and she made no bones about her beliefs and the strength thereof. She had a well-worn Bible from which she read passages everyday. She could quote scripture with no effort and never doubted that she was literally correct every time. She was singularly responsible for instilling within me a fear of the awesome power of that Divine Being who was poised to rein down all sorts of pain and suffering for the slightest infraction of His myriad rules and proscriptions.

My Grandmother was a staunch supporter of Vacation Bible School. In retrospect, I don’t doubt her commitment one bit. However, given the religious makeup of the rest of the family, I cannot help but wonder if they aided and abetted her fervor just to get the kids out of the house for a few hours. Regardless, I enjoyed getting away and having the opportunity to draw, color, sing and socialize with my peers. What was put forth as education was so alien to me that I gave it little attention.

When I had matured to that of a pre-pubescent boy, my Grandmother decided it was time for me to be exposed to church services, the most important aspect of all that being the revival meeting. She took me by the hand, and I dutifully followed, to a sandstone building with a neon sign that read “JESUS SAVES,” prominently perched atop the structure. There was a lot of smiling, shaking of hands and shouts of approval for the inspired word as preached by Reverend Pulis. The meeting built to a crescendo of excitement when the moment came to “go forward.” I was not just in awe of what was going on around me; I was absolutely terrified. When my Grandmother asked me if I wanted to “go forward,” I hadn’t a clue as to what that was all about. All I knew was that it resulted in making some sort of a verbal commitment from the front while looking out at all those rapturous people, to be followed by a complete immersion in a tank of water by Reverend Pulis. That was not my idea of a good time. I refused my Grandmother’s offer and was relieved when we exited that exercise in fear, and back into the cool air of the autumn’s evening. I never went back to the Baptist Church.

I aligned myself with the rather lukewarm religious convictions of my parental home and was quite content to forego any further ventures into the world of religion.

After I graduated from high school and joined the United States Navy, there was a growing desire within me to seek a religious foundation that would sustain me through all that my adult life was to throw at me. One could ask, and rightfully so, why did I find it necessary to engage in such a pursuit? As I matured, I became increasingly aware of the demons within me, something I shared with all my fellow mortals. There is that constant conflict that goes on within us from the beginning to the end of our lives. Within that conflict is the ease with which we can rationalize the less noble aspects of who and what we are, so often not just to our own detriment but to those of a whole host of others we will meet on the road through life. I felt a growing need to find and subscribe to a moral compass in order to maximize honesty with myself, minimize the propensity towards self-deception and treat others as I would like to be treated in return.

I first tried the Presbyterian Church. That quickly proved to be an uncomfortable fit for me. My next sampling was the Episcopal Church. The ritual and props of it all were a bit overwhelming, so my tenure was rather brief. I was becoming somewhat discouraged by it all, but one thing I did know for sure. I needed a compass to guide me on my mortal journey.

A couple of my shipmates regularly attended a local Methodist Church in Honolulu, and one Sunday they asked me to join them. I accepted the invitation and was pleasantly surprised at what I found. I liked the fact that it was not an emotional religion and that it had an intellectual bent to it. That made it appealing to me and my comfort zone. I stayed with that church for several years. However, when I was a university student, at the end of the academic year I received in the mail one of those “window” envelopes that was, in those days, a clear sign of an overdue bill. When I opened it, I was reminded that I was in arrears by $4.50 on my annual pledge. I was further admonished to remit the unpaid balance within ten days. The completely put me off and I never went back. I thought I had joined a church, not a commercial enterprise. There is a right way and a wrong way to do everything, and the way that issue was handled was, in my opinion, totally inappropriate for a religious institution. It was particularly offensive, given that I was going through college on the $110 per month provided by the G.I. Bill.

Prominent in my quest for religious enlightenment was that offered in the Bible. I tried reading that rather formidable tome several times, only to be discouraged at the thought of having to wade through all that “begetting.” It exhausted me just thinking about it. While I was a university student I signed up for an elective course titled “The Bible as Literature.” I looked forward to being guided through that work by a real pro. However, when the professor introduced the course as “the greatest fictional work ever written,” coupled with the requirement that a term paper had to be written as part of the course, I chucked it in. I didn’t like his rather flippant manner and I sure as hell didn’t want to take on five term papers that semester. So, that ended my flirtation with any notion I may have had at becoming an aspiring biblical scholar.

When I was engaged to be married, I decided I had to fish or cut bait. If we were to be a cohesive family, I decided that our family would be much better off if we all went to the same church together on Sunday. I was somewhat daunted by the mystery and the pageantry of the Church, and I knew I had a lot to learn. Over the years, it has proven to be a good fit. It has provided me with the foundation I was seeking and the privacy I prefer. I have had, and still have, issues with my faith but I am at peace with where I am. That is probably because I have never abdicated what I regard as a fundamental intellectual obligation to question everything, and reject nothing out of hand where the scales are tipped on the side of truth. That is one of the great gifts I took away from the traditions of the university from which I graduated.

I can assure you, however, that nothing has ever been quite as formidable or ecclesiastically terrifying to me as Reverend Pulis and that horse tank full of cold water at the JESUS SAVES Baptist Church.

I will pursue this subject further in a future column.

Cowboy Bob
October 8, 2008

Friday, October 3, 2008

"A Government for Whom?"

As the financial markets come falling down around our heads, the king makers in Washington and the barons of Wall Street have wasted no time in trying to corner complete control of the 700 billion dollar bailout that is now the big bone of contention in our Nation’s Capitol. As of this writing, it looks as if the power of the people may well have been louder than the corrupt influence of those who perpetrated this crisis, and who are seeking to cover their financial asses at the expense of the taxpayers. It remains fluid and the final outcome is yet to be seen. However, it says a hell of a lot more about the wisdom of those who opposed this stampede and their grass-roots movement than any credit due the Founding Fathers in setting up this so-called “democracy.” In the end, though, there is little doubt in my mind that the taxpayers will once again get the big screw without benefit of kiss.

Let’s face it, folks. The notion that we are, or ever have been, a democracy is nothing more than a grand illusion taught to us from the first day of school in the newly formed United States of America. We are, pure and simple, a plutocracy. Money and the power of money control and dictate what our government does, and who benefits from it. To be sure, it ebbs and flows, but the plutocrats always come out on top and the common man is left with the hindmost.

With the passage of time, we have come to believe that those who founded this country were a bunch of egalitarians who believed in the wisdom of the common man, and all authority flowed from them to the political and government leaders of the Republic. Not altogether true. There were those among them who held views to the effect that those of education and privilege were more suited to govern the country. Given the nature of negotiation and compromise, it only stands to reason that some aspects of that mindset carried over into practice with the newfound “democracy.” I happen to believe that same mindset and the effects of their wealth and privilege on our government, as well as the citizenry, still reside with what has often been termed, “Eastern money and power.”

Today, we have what is unquestionably an imperial presidency, more pronounced by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney than any of their predecessors. They have thumbed their noses at the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They have trampled on the rights of the citizens. They have conducted business in secret, flirting with the very legality of their conduct. They have lied to the American people, leading us into an illegal war. Their deception has been further compounded by the periodic admonitions about threats to our safety and security, leading us to somehow believe that they, alone, were protecting us from the forces of evil and darkness. Much like the monarchs of days gone by, they have effectively gotten off Scot-free with what can only be regarded as criminal behavior, all because we and Congress have allowed them to behave as if they were reigning royalty! The term “Imperial Presidency” seems more apt than ever. They have gotten a free pass on conduct that would have landed Average Joe Blow a reserved accommodation in the slammer. If that were not bad enough, they will retire with a fat pension and a goodly number of the trappings of the offices they held.

That George W. Bush can claim he graduated from Yale and received his MBA from Harvard only underscores the fact that family and wealth play a far greater role in his credentials than does intellect and academic achievement. Also, the very size of the Endowment Fund at Harvard would further underscore its ties to big money.

Of the 43 presidents who have occupied the White House to date, 13 or 30 per cent have one or more degrees from Harvard, Yale or Princeton.

Of the 42 Cabinet positions occupied by Harvard graduates, 8 have served as the Secretary of the Treasury, 7 have served as Secretary of State, 7 have served as the Attorney General, and 8 have served as the Secretary of War or the Secretary of Defense. Of all the Cabinet positions, those would seem to hold the greatest power and influence.

Of all the Justices who have sat on the Supreme Court, 19 have been graduates of the Harvard Law School.

I categorically reject any notion of academic superiority by any and all of the Ivy League Schools. Despite the mystique they have cultivated, which most of us buy into, I am more inclined to believe it is more a factor of the power of wealth and family name than it is to the gene pool from whence they come. That they exert disproportionate influence over our lives by the positions they hold and the resources they control seems rather self-evident.

Let us not lose sight of the fact that, although all massive de-regulation of the financial institutions on Wall Street was fostered by Senator Phil Gramm while he was serving as Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee in a Republican Congress, for it to have become law it had to have been signed by then President William J. Clinton (Yale), with the concurrence of either Robert Rubin as Secretary of the Treasury (Harvard) or Lawrence Summers as his successor (Harvard). I, also, find it rather coincidental that it came out during the primaries that Chelsea Clinton worked for one of the largest hedge funds on Wall Street. Coincidence? I am reasonably certain, if the issue were to be carefully researched, we would find that the same disproportionate amount of influence and control over the financial industries lies is in the hands of the Eastern centers of power, wealth and influence that have always been major players in our national destiny.

Two of the chief proponents of the bail out of Wall Street from the current financial crisis are (1) George W. Bush (Yale, Harvard) and Henry Paulson (Harvard).

I rather imagine most of us would like to believe that our institutions are a cross-section of America. The facts seem to suggest otherwise.

The 17th Amendment to the Constitution effectively created the Federal Monolith that lies within the Beltway of Washington, D.C. Up until the passage of this amendment, members of the United States Senate were directly accountable for their actions to their individual states through the state legislatures. Now, largely because they only have to seek re-election every 6 years, rather than every 2 years (House of Representatives) or every 4 years (Presidency), they are more insulated from the power of the people than any other branch of government except the Supreme Court and, as a consequence, tend to provide more fertile ground for self-serving and corrupt practices, as well. They are much more prone to respond to the influence of lobbyists and special interests, and all the other perks that go with their office. Is it any wonder they so readily dismiss the will of the people in favor of their own omnipotence? At least, because congressmen in the House of Representatives have to go back to the voters every 2 years, they are, generally, more sensitive and beholden to those who put and keep them in office.

There is one more very important element involved in the balance of power between the players in Washington. That is the role played by a free and unfettered news media, a role that has served this country and our democracy extremely well until events of recent history radically changed all that. Historically, they have done an outstanding job of keeping the system honest. Through the political maneuvering exerted on the Federal Communications Commission, the role of the media has been radically changed and drastically reduced by permitting corporate ownership of our newspapers, radio stations and television networks. They are now anything but “free and unfettered.” They operate within the sphere of influence by which public opinion is shaped for the purpose of serving their corporate masters and shareholders. From a former diet of divergent opinion, discourse and debate, we citizens now live on a bill-of-fare prepared by big business interests and doled out to us in the form of corporate Pabulum of mediocrity, sameness, entertainment and advertising. Nothing that would challenge the mediocre mindset of most Americans. We are simply too ignorant, too lazy, too complacent or a combination of all three. We are there to be picked off at will in order to feed the insatiable appetite of avarice so endemic to our culture.

At the end of the day, I do believe that the parliamentary system of government has more going for it than the plutocracy that governs our national affairs under the banner of “democracy.” Why? Because there is more direct accountability to the people and less opportunity for limitless greed and personal power.

We have: (a) a President, (b) the Senate and (c) the House of Representatives.

The British Parliamentary System has: (a) a Constitutional Monarch, (b) the House of Lords and (c) the House of Commons.

Under a parliamentary system, the gargantuan egos and the propensity for corruption by the elite are given expression, but contained, through use of meaningless titles and the other trappings of exclusivity so dear to their need for superiority. At a price to be sure, but far less costly to the taxpayers than what goes on within the Washington Beltway.

It seems to me a palace on the banks of the Potomac, a summer palace in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a winter palace in Wickenburg, Arizona, a fleet of Cadillac and Lincoln limousines, a few diamonds and duties comprised of frivolous by ceremonies of one sort or another pales in comparison to what is included in our Federal Budget every year.

Though the “duties” of office are likely to be nothing short of burdensome, shall we start the transition by crowing me King Robert I? It does have a rather nice ring to it.

Cowboy Bob
October 3, 2008