Cast Iron Skillet

A blog about teaching, English, and teaching English


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Randall K. Dudley, the Norway Rat

I’m a seaplane pilot—Sharp Eyes Raccoon—
Been flying this coast for many a moon—
I’ve seen it snow on the first of June,
Seen blizzards worse than any typhoon,
Seen tides—fifty feet from midnight to noon.
But one thing I ain’t seen and won’t see soon
Is a fuel guard worthy to wear the hat
Of Randall K. Dudley, the Norway rat.

.

Along the Bay of Fundy shore
Of Nova Scotia, known in lore
For towering tides, and storms galore,
A village is safe from the ocean’s roar
In a cove by which the gray cliffs soar.
It’s St. Gaspard, and there for more
Than twenty years, in a fisherman’s hat,
Worked Randall K. Dudley, the Norway rat.

.

He stood at his post at the end of the pier,
His beady eyes squinched in a menacing leer,
His yellow incisors bared in a sneer,
The smoke from his pipe like an inky smear.
He never once budged, be it storm or clear,
From guarding the fuel. “Well, well, that’s that,”
Said Randall K. Dudley, the Norway rat.

.

I flew the mail to the Nova Scotians,
Plus vital supplies and sundry notions—
Acorns for squirrels, beaver tooth lotions—
And when they were sick, needing hospital potions
My plane was an ambulance over the ocean.
But the distance was more than I could handle
Without the help of the stalwart Randall.

.

I flew that route on the Bay of Fundy,
Morning and evening, except on Sunday,
In my steadfast, reliable single-prop Skundi.
I’d stop for a lunch of solomon gundy
(The sweet pickled herring, we both liked that)
With Randall K. Dudley, the Norway rat.

.

The legends were legion about his career:
Once, tides so high, they swamped the pier—
He carried the 55-gallon drums clear.
Once wind-chill so savage it froze off his ear:
He scowled, and he shrugged, then, quite cavalier,
He twiddled his whiskers. “Well, well, that’s that,”
Said Randall K. Dudley, the Norway rat.

.

One midwinter night—a daring raid
By a pair of sea lions, fuel-robbers by trade—
They swam to the depot, each baring a blade,
Where the sign said “Fuel, Aviation Grade.”
But the vigilant guard was unafraid:
He thrashed and he slashed, and the robbers, dismayed,
Dove back in the water. “Well, well, that’s that,”
Said Randall K. Dudley, the Norway rat.

.

Other brigands were feline, they came in a swarm—
House-cats, he scoffed; he knew the form:
They wintered by fireplaces, cuddled and warm.
No bite of the sea-spray, no teeth of the storm:
Protected and pampered, that was the norm.
They looked rather lazy, and very fat,
Compared to the fierce and sinewy rat.

.

He snarled his snarl with yellow fang,
He cocked his knees, but before he sprang,
In a sudden panic, the feline gang
Performed a rapid boomerang.
He puffed on his pipe. “Well, well, that’s that,”
Said Randall K. Dudley, the Norway rat.

.

But the noblest achievement of this guard
Of the fuel on the jetty in St. Gaspard,
I witnessed myself—and it hit me hard.
It left me shaken, forever scarred—
For that was by far his greatest day,
But it was the end of Randall K.

.

On a night cold enough to freeze your gizzard,
From the sea came a pitiless wind that scissored,
And then a swirling, blinding blizzard,
With snow piling higher than the hat of a wizard.
But through it all, demurely sat,
Twiddling his whiskers, the Norway rat.

.

And that very night, in the town of St. Vitus,
In a house on the point, where the Cape Split light is,
An otter came down with appendicitis!
I hooked her up to the hemostat,
Then radioed Randall, the Norway rat:

.

“It’s Sharp Eyes—the Skundi with single prop—
I’m gonna need gas, filled up to the top,
To finish my urgent Fundy hop
And reach the usual hospital stop,
Or else this otter’s tummy will pop!
It’s the storm of the century, can you do that?
Can you tank up my seaplane, you tough old rat?”

.

“You call this a storm?” he said in a growl,
Over crashing waves, and the wind’s howl.
Despite the static, I heard his scowl
As he said, “The weather is somewhat foul.
So move it. I don’t have time to chat.
Over and out,” said the Norway rat.

.

The going was rough—the sea so choppy,
The floats banged the waves, the wings were floppy—
My take-off was inexcusably sloppy,
But airborne in 30 seconds flat,
I flew northeast toward the rat.

.

The lantern swayed in the depot yard
On Randall’s pier at St. Gaspard.
I yanked on the joystick, rolling hard,
And his the surf with an awkward splat
Near Randall K. Dudley, the Norway rat.

.

His pipe—I don’t know how he lit it—
Had a dull red glow, and I saw that he gritted
His curved yellow fangs, and he snarled as he knitted
His frost-covered brows, and his eyes, they were slitted.
But if he was cold, well he didn’t admit it.
I watched him from the Skundi doorway,
That rat of the species known as Norway.

.

As he filled the tank, I was shocked to see
The jetty jerk like it might break free,
As gale-force winds came savagely,
And breakers surged from a raging sea.
The lightning hinted catastrophe:
The fuel line bent at a sharp degree
Just where the shore-line link was at!
I spun in alarm toward the rat.

.

He slapped the fuselage of the Skundi,
And shoved me out on the Bay of Fundy,
Yelling, “Hey, Sharp Eyes, see you on Monday.
We’ll share a plate of solomon gundy.”
I shouted: “I’ll gladly pay for that,
If I survive tonight, you rat.”

.

I gunned the throttle and gripped the stick,
Though snow came at me, fierce and thick,
And each wave hit with a jarring kick,
And wind seemed to hurtle, double-quick.
But the otter, she still looked deathly sick:
Her eyes were glassy, her speech was muddly,
So I motored away from Mr. Dudley.

.

Accelerating toward the cliff,
I heard that weepy otter sniff.
I said, “Don’t fret, we’ll be up in a jiff.”
But I was beginning to wonder if
We’d get as high as a bedside candle,
Or the hat on the head of the rat named Randall.

.

But then the wind’s direction shifted
To south-southeast, where the current drifted,
And ever so slightly, the aircraft lifted
And made its climb, just where the cliff did.
Now safe, I banked so I could cheer
At the Norway rat who was missing an ear.

.

But then—from out in the North Atlantic,
A tidal surge, so fast and gigantic,
Hit Fundy’s bay—and made me frantic!
I feared for him in the fisherman’s hat,
That tough and unflappable Norway rat.

.

The surge roared up to St. Gaspard
And struck the pier so terribly hard—
The old spruce pilings splintered and jarred—
It twisted and snapped—I looked for the guard—
Was he flung in the air like a helpless gnat?
Or dunked in the surf like a water rat?

.

Then something far worse—the pier, overloaded
With fuel, and its line to the shore corroded—
It sparked when it snapped, which grimly boded—
And then the whole pier and the depot exploded
In a hideous fireball as bright as day . . .
But where was my buddy Randall K.?

.

The pier burned orange, and thick black smoke
Engulfed the cove in a grisly cloak
And spewed on the water, enough to choke
Survivors of the lethal stroke
Of high-octane fuel in metal vats
Ignited close to Norway rats.

.

I wanted to search for my valiant friend,
But that would have meant the certain end
For the otter and me, if I did descend.
A certainty I could comprehend
Was the loss of life and habitat
For Randall K. Dudley, the Norway rat.

.

The otter screamed, and my duty pressed:
I had no choice but to head to the west
For St. John, New Brunswick, and hospital rest
For my ailing patient, who never guessed
The truth of her rescue, as she convalesced.
The price? I never told her that:
One extremely reliable Norway rat.

.

As I flew, the storm grew less severe—
On landing, the weather was almost clear.
A hedgehog Red Cross volunteer
Took charge of the patient at Hospital Pier.
I sat at the wheel, feeling spent and drear,
And on the altimeter splashed a tear.
Rocked by the waves, now low and flat,
I wept for Randall, the Norway rat.

.

I climbed to the pier and tied up the Skundi,
Then stood and gazed at the mysterious Fundy,
And a voice in my mind said, “See you on Monday,
Go eat that plate of solomon gundy.”
I shrugged, then nodded, “Well, well, that’s that,
Randall K. Dudley, you Norway rat.”

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Put on Your Helmet and Get in the Game

a Country/Rap duet with a biracial football theme

by Christopher Cotton

.

It’s fourth and goal at the one-yard line,
The scoreboard clock says oh-five-nine,
We’re four points down, and the coach calls time,
And he looks up and down the whole sideline—
He points at you and he calls your name—
So put on your helmet and get in the game!

.

You’ve been sittin’ on the bench since the game began,
Lookin’ at the cheerleaders, chattin’ with the fans.
When the team started rallyin’ you clapped your hands,
But you never thought you’d figure in the coach’s plans.
But the startin’ left guard just pulled up lame—
So put on your helmet and get in the game.

.

Now don’t tell me you’re feelin’ poor,
You’re head’s kinda groggy and your butt’s kinda sore,
The other guy’s taller and he weighs much more,
And you don’t feel ready, well you just ain’t sure—
So you’re tired and hurtin’—ain’t that a shame—
Just put on your helmet and get in the game.

.

Now don’t try to tell me that the guy on your right
Is hard to work with, he’s so uptight,
And the fella on the left ain’t particularly bright.
You gotta work with ’em in the one good fight,
And we’ll share the glory or we’ll share the blame,
So put on your helmet and get in the game!

.

The game ain’t over till the final gun,
But for some folks it ain’t even begun,
So listen my friends, there’s work to be done,
And the simple truth is there’s only one
Team that we’re playin’ on in this here game—
And it ain’t ever easy and it sure ain’t tame,
But it don’t matter we don’t look the same,
And it don’t matter we don’t sound the same.
Put on your helmet and get in the game!


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Namaste: A Spiritual Approach to Grading

The reason why one is so vastly more fortunate to be a teacher of English, versus the uncapitalized subjects, is the grading. Yes, the grading. It’s a burden, it’s a bugaboo, it’s a bear. It’s the slayer of weekends. As Macbeth’s Gaelic teacher said, it doth murder sleep. And yet, if we are lucky enough to work in a district that does not overwhelm us with students, it is a source of lightness and rejuvenation.

Not always. There are plenty of times when I would echo Marianne Moore: “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.” Grading can get in the way—of my family, of my sanity, of my students’ education. And, no matter with what enthusiasm I approach a stack of essays, I might get beaten down by it. The poet Marianne Moore was talking about our subject, of course, not our job, but I’ll continue the quote: “however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it after all, a place for the genuine.”

When I find myself in that place for the genuine, that’s when I love my job. The grading of an individual essay is an occasion, a moment cut out from the regular march of time, an event of heightened consciousness. And though it’s a public act, it’s intensely private. I explain it to my students this way: it’s a meeting of minds. I expect them to dig into their hearts, and to grope outward into the unknown world, in every essay. And, as a reader, I expect the same of myself. What makes the write a rite is this commitment of reader and writer to find each other in a place for the genuine. Sometimes there is nothing genuine in an essay. The whole damn thing might have been cut and pasted from cheateressays.com. Or the student might be too frightened, too tired or too lazy to access their own authenticity. But with good planning and good luck, these problems can be minimized. More likely impediments are on our side of the red pen: our own fear, fatigue and laziness.

The solution isn’t coffee, though that might help. Rather, we, like many of our students, may need an attitude adjustment. For those who love tinkering with car engines, that is a self-energizing activity. The attitude with which they approach the work refreshes them psychically. But other people groan when they pop the hood, and curse under their breath as they gaze down at the old clunker. The chore depletes energy. With grading, the trick is to acquire that attitude which makes it energy-producing.

My trick is to take a moment before I begin a stack of essays and say, quietly, Namaste.

It’s a very old Sanskrit word and a traditional Hindu greeting: literally, “I bow to you.” But many writers in English, especially those of a spiritual bent, get a little carried away, and maybe something gets found in translation. One yoga teacher offered: “That which is sacred within me salutes that which is sacred within you.” It’s a lovely sentiment, and perhaps for some Hindus, that is the deep power of the word. In any case, it works for me when I modify it as a pre-grading mantra: “That which is genuine within me, may it find that which is genuine within each essay.”

* * *

Our assignments can be obstacles. If we make no invitation to the genuine, the student will either be obediently banal or be genuine in a destructive way. Either way, we lose—the grading is misery.

Formulae can have the same numbing effect. While boiler plates such as the five-paragraph essay may sometimes be unavoidable, and occasionally even useful, for our own sakes we have to minimize such institutionalized deadness. If the very structure we force students into is a cliché, we shouldn’t expect much originality.

Then there’s our method of grading. Rubrics have their place, but it isn’t a genuine one. They offer a tempting shortcut—and bypass the rougher, higher ground where minds can meet. By taking an essay as the sum of its parts, the rubric denies the essential mystery of any sincere piece of writing. I use rubrics for one-dimensional assignments that need a quick grade rather than a meaningful response—presentations, posters, etc.

Rubrics provide the comforting illusion of objectivity. But we can’t escape our subjectivity. And we shouldn’t commence our grading with the lie that we can. No student falls for it, even if we convince ourselves. We must continually inventory ourselves for favoritism, faulty assumptions and sloppy thinking. When we make a mistake, we must promptly admit it, fix it if we can, and learn from it. But we must accept our subjectivity. There’s no other route to the genuine.

Then there’s consistency, another bugaboo. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it “the hobgoblin of little minds.” Later in “Self-Reliance” he wrote: “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” I may not be a great soul, but I would like to grade soulfully. And this means, in effect, that I am open to be changed by a piece of writing. If the old proverb is correct, “You can never step into the same river twice,” then we will just have to admit: Two essays can never be graded by the same teacher.

* * *

We encourage our student-writers to take risks. Should we not take our own advice—and take risks in our grading? It might sound shocking at first. But if we don’t, aren’t we assuming that we’ve already reached some promised land of master teacher perfection? That we don’t need to grow? That the essay is a form without mystery? That the art of writing is a measurable, limited field of knowledge—a spreadsheet of words—and that we have the algorithm for converting it into a point value?

I must admit that a certain selfishness underlies this approach to grading. I believe that I have the basic human right to enjoy my work. I also believe that teacher and student are embarked upon a joint venture, and teachers lead not so much by knowing the way, but by being unafraid of the dark.

There’s a certain amount of idealism here, surely. I don’t live up to it all the time, maybe not half the time, but it’s what I always strive for. It’s the ideal I aspire to, and the sincerity of the labor is all I have to offer. That’s hard enough, anyway. Even now, as I do what is for me the pleasurable task of tinkering with my own writing, I’m procrastinating from a stack of essays.

But I will get to it. And I will start by taking a moment for my word.

Namaste. The word itself bows to us across the millennia and across the curving earth. The suffix, te, will be a familiar object to you if you know Spanish or French. It means “you,” in the familiar form, as direct object.   It’s the long-lost twin sister of Shakespeare’s thee. The Indo-Europeans—that Stone Age people we know only by the linguistic record—carried this steadfast syllable, always the familiar, sometimes the object, and it became tu in Urdu, Gaelic and Latin, toe in Farsi, ti in Russian and Welsh. Language is full of such hidden connections, and who knows what doors and passages are still secret from us. Students, when they write, inhabit this ancient and amorphous structure that is ever being clumped, unclumped and reclumped together by the collective endeavor of human consciousness. They invite us in. How can we turn them down?

 

 

* This essay was published in the July, 2011 issue of English Journal.


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Winning is for Losers

PART 1. LUCK THE ANARCH

The returner awaited the punt at his own 30-yard line. His team had just completed an amazing comeback, tying the score with 21 points in the game’s final eight minutes, and now, with 14 seconds on the clock, his return would be the last play of regulation.

But he blew it. He choked. He failed to execute, as coaches say, forgetting the fundamentals of his position. He committed the Pop Warner error that TV commentators love to point out: running up to the 35-yard line to get under the short kick, he glanced at the onrushing behemoths who wished him harm, taking his eyes off the ball for a split second. He didn’t get close enough to the path of the ball and couldn’t catch it using his body. Instead, he leaned forward awkwardly and the ball smashed through his fingers. As the eleven players of the cover team thundered down the field toward him, the ball somersaulted erratically toward his own goal line.

Then he made an even worse mistake. Instead of falling on the ball, as his coaches were screaming at him to do, he attempted to pick it up on the fly.

This was the final play of the final game of the 2010 season. Neither the New York Giants nor the Philadelphia Eagles was having a stellar year, but the winner of this game would be an NFC wild card in the playoffs. The play developed in unpredictable fashion.

The fumbled ball bounced erratically on the Astroturf. A player scooped it up and raced, almost untouched, to the end zone. The hapless bumbler was excoriated on the field by his own coach, reviled in the media, and tweeted by fans warning him to “get witness protection.”

But wait—that hapless bumbler was the punter. He had not kicked the ball the way that his coach had ordered, high and toward the sideline. Instead, he had kicked a low line drive directly toward the returner. Against all odds, the returner recovered his own fumble and ran for a touchdown. The punter was the last man in the way, and he made a decidedly untelegenic lunge, failing to even touch the returner.

If you’re a Giants fan, this December 2010 game so stuck in your craw that you immediately recognized the botched-punt-that-cost-us-the-playoffs. In Giants lore, the play is up there with the infamous 1978 last-second fumble that cost them a game and any shot at the playoffs. And the beneficiaries of that catastrophe? The same archrival Philadelphia Eagles, of course, who refer to that moment as “The Miracle in the Meadowlands.” Eagles fans were quick to dub this year’s version in the Giants’ new stadium, “The Miracle in the New Meadowlands.”

Punt returner DeSean Jackson snatched the ball from the turf. His momentum carried him further backward, past his 32-yard line, where he slowed and began turning. He took a step backward on the 30, and, for about a quarter of a second (the time it takes a 250-pound special teams player to get a yard or two closer) he froze. Jackson described the moment: “I panicked real quickly.”

Surely, the patron deity of football is not Ares, the self-important, cowardly god of war. No, it’s Hera, whose wicked sense of humor and thirst for petty vengeance made even her husband Zeus afraid of her. And at this moment in the course of human events, as the two sidelines screamed conflicting instructions, as 80,000 fans in the New Meadowlands Stadium gasped in breathless suspense, as 19 million Americans stared goggle-eyed at their flat screen plasma TVs, she changed her mind.

Jackson said: “I saw a crease and I just shot through that crease.” Was this gap due to sloppy special teams work by the Giants? Was it due to the inevitably random, split-second arrangement of twenty-two sprinting human bodies? Some credit might go to the Eagles special teams, who had already embarrassed the Giants with a surprise onside kick. Eagles special teams coordinator Bobby April said he had decided not to go with the more predictable block attempt, but, “We went with a maximum return.” This turned out very well, but was it a smart call? Ninety-nine times out of 100, the answer would be no. Everyone knew that the punter would kick it out of bounds, and if they didn’t even pressure him, what are the chances that he would give them a returnable punt? The University of Arkansas found themselves in a similar situation two weeks later in the Sugar Bowl. Down 31-26 with 1:09 left and Ohio State punting from their own18, they went for a maximum block—and got it. (An interception shortly afterward foiled the Razorbacks, however.)

In hindsight, it appears a brilliant decision by a brilliant special teams unit. But Bobby April’s crew was not having a good year, and the speedy DeSean Jackson was averaging only 8.7 yards per return, with no touchdowns. On this fateful run, Jackson made only one particularly skillful move, on Bear Pascoe, who said, “he put a little shimmy on me, and that’s what got him past me.” There was only one block that made a difference, Jason Avant taking out the Giants long snapper Zak DeOssie. After streaking past the punter, Ed Dodge, Jackson was so quickly in the clear that he began celebrating on the 30 yard-line and made a horizontal jag in front of the goal line because “I always try to do something out of the ordinary,” as he told reporters. Hera must have enjoyed Jackson’s showboating, because she could have flipped the wheel of fortune one more time. Jackson’s own teammates were not expecting his detour, and at least a half dozen of them were already on the field, celebrating, by the time he finally crossed the goal line. The officials could have called the whole play back for a penalty.

But it’s the punter’s mistake we remember, of course. Kickers are the perennial imposters in the hypermacho world of football. Real men are disgusted that their fate so often depends on these effete specialists. It’s as if the Greek and Trojan warriors fought to a stalemate, and then had to watch as the opposing kings’ daughters decided the outcome with competitive embroidery.

Did losing coach Tom Coughlin cast his head skyward and rail at Hera for such a series of unfortunate events? If he had, she would have spat back: “Hey, I gave you a Super Bowl, for Zeus’ sake! Who else do you think glued the ball to what’s-his-name’s helmet?” Coughlin ran onto the field and screamed in the dejected punter’s face. Dodge had failed to execute. The low line drive punt is the hardest to defend, because the cover team does not have time to get down the field before the returner catches the ball. But the fact that Jackson’s fumble immediately negated the impact of such a punt did not register with Coughlin. Someone had not done as he directed. And the game was lost.

At the post-game press conference, Coughlin only slightly moderated his abuse. He claimed, disingenuously, “I take full responsibility for the last play….” Then he went on… “the young punter was told to punt it out of bounds…and we all learn the hard way.” The media followed his lead. They besieged Dodge in the locker room, before he could escape after a hasty shower. The rookie punter admitted his error and nobly refused to blame the center for the high snap. Things got so bad that a chivalrous Deon Grant, the Giants’ safety, broke into the kerfuffle at Dodge’s locker, and said: “It ain’t his fault. It’s on the defense.” The media, however, did not agree.

Continuing with the play-by-play moments after the touchdown, Joe Buck, Emmy-winning announcer for Fox Sports, said that the punt was “impossible to explain.” On The Coaches Show on NFL.com, former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick faulted the punter—“he rushed his fundamentals”—and said that Coach Coughlin “could have gone out there and choked that kicker to death—there’s not a court in America that would have convicted him.” But Jackson’s potentially game-losing mistake got different treatment. Notice Billick’s subtle insertion of “had to” that transforms human error into necessity: “Because DeSean Jackson had to bumble it around a little bit—how many times have we seen where all of a sudden that collapses your coverage team, it condenses the lane, and all of a sudden the guy pops out like that.” This is sports revisionism at its finest. Not only is the punter guilty of a capital offense that gave precious seconds to the returner, but the returner is congratulated for a mistake that gave them back.

The local press on the winning side was more honest about the freakish luck. Philadelphia writers described the play as “a perfect storm” and “the Twilight Zone.” But this magnanimity was limited to the happy partisans in eastern Pennsylvania. Big time national pundits are more serious. They’re supposed to explain why the final result occurred, and they won’t go far in the business if they talk about divine intervention. Here’s how Mark Viera described the punter: “Matt Dodge, whose inability to kick the ball out of bounds resulted in the Giants’ unthinkable game-ending loss

to the Philadelphia Eagles.” Viera’s odd construction, “game-ending loss,” may be atypical for the high editorial standards of his paper, The New York Times, but his pat cause-and-effect in place of the swirling nebula of improbable happenstances that led to the final score—his egregiously sloppy thinking—is the unquestioned norm across his profession.

What made the Giants lose? The same nonsensical force that made the Eagles win. Luck.

* * *

In a blizzard in January 2002, my hometown team, the New England Patriots, hosted a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. With less than two minutes remaining, down 13-10, the Patriots were driving when the young quarterback Tom Brady fumbled during a sack by Charles Woodson. The ball was recovered by the Raiders and the game was over. A dejected Brady, believing that he had bungled away the game, made his way to the sideline. But lo! Down came ref ex machina, in the form of Walt Coleman with the video replay. Coleman chose that moment to invoke the “tuck rule,” an arcane regulation that has lived in infamy from that moment. Even though Brady’s arm was not moving forward in a passing motion when the ball came loose, and even though he had two hands on the ball and was holding it near his chest, it was an “incomplete pass” because he hadn’t completely “tucked” the ball into his body. It was a moment of true gridiron absurdity. Coleman gave the ball back to the Patriots, who tied the game a few plays later with a field goal. They won it with another in overtime. People have been arguing about the tuck rule ever since, and the only thing everyone agrees on is that it stinks.

As a Patriots fan, I could only rationalize this patent injustice as payback for the bitter travesty of the 1976 playoff game that I still remember with painful clarity: a game which the referee literally took from the Patriots and handed to the Raiders—and this despite some atrocious but uncalled fouls, including a punch that broke our tight end’s nose. It’s that game that has always prevented me, like many old and ornery New Englanders, from forming any fondness for John Madden, the coach of the league’s dirtiest team who reinvented himself as a cuddly commentator.

(Some Raider fans rationalized their undeserved fortune of 1976 by remembering the “Immaculate Reception” of Franco Harris, which cost them a trip to the Super Bowl four years earlier. Steelers fans, not to be outdone, saw that one-in-a-gazillion fluke as a just reward for the long hard decades when Jim Brown, Paul Brown and the rest of the archrival Browns trampled them unmercifully. And as for the Browns? Well, there’s one thing I’ve learned in my last 17 years living in Northeast Ohio: don’t ever get a Cleveland fan started on the issue of historic sports injustices. Psychologists have a term for this phenomenon; it’s called a “pissing contest.”)

What happened after the tuck rule? The Patriots went on to become the most successful team of the decade, winning that Super Bowl and three others. The Raiders inaugurated twelve years of futility. It’s impossible to know what would have happened if the referee hadn’t had his mental white-out in the snow. The Patriots would certainly have been among the best in the next season, the Raiders probably would have declined. But there’s no denying the role of dumb luck in launching the Patriots’ dynasty. Dumb luck keeps the word “dynasty” attached to this team. They have been caught cheating—twice. They won the Super Bowl in 2015 after a last-second interception by an unknown player, a play not quite as improbable as the snow job of 2002.

The Patriots of 2002, like the Eagles of 2010, were skilled and dedicated professionals, and their accomplishments were genuine. Nonetheless, they were also the beneficiaries of a transcendent, incomprehensible force. An entity like Hera is, I believe, a perfectly rational expedient for making sense of such events. But at age 3000-something, the old gal has lost some of her zip, and we need more modern language. Fans and sportswriters often speak of “destiny,” but this is a weasel-word, employed to avoid confronting irrationality. “Miracle” is an even worse word to use: it imparts a hint of justice to a bizarre outcome by suggesting that God willed it. “Luck” is the most accurate word, but it’s not big enough on its own. John Milton, in Paradise Lost, saw the beginning of the universe as a sort of Greek mythological chaos, or anarchy, over which presided an entity he called the “Anarch.” Now, if anarchy gets a ruler it ceases to be anarchy, so this word is a lovely oxymoronic coinage, similar to Milton’s “darkness visible” of Hell. The Anarch rules by not ruling. And that’s exactly what luck does. Luck the Anarch.

The role of the sportswriter is like the priest of old, to stand between us and the immensity beyond the altar, to mediate for us, to explain away the mysteries, and most important of all, to keep the terrifying, nameless force hidden behind the curtain.

PART 2: RACING THE TRAIN

Americans, who grow up with the sport and thus have years to absorb its vagaries, don’t appreciate just how convoluted and bizarre football is. Does any other game on earth require a rulebook with sub-sub-sub-headings like the one for the tuck rule: “Rule 3, Section 21, Article 2, Note 2”? I’ll never forget my first football game. I was ten years old and had only recently moved from London to the United States. A friend of my father’s took me to a Boston University game, and he attempted to narrate the proceedings to the befuddled English lad. After about fifteen minutes, I told him, Cor blimey! Forget it!

Due to the hopelessly complicated rules, the many methods of scoring for various numbers of points, the extreme influence of referees, the tendency for minor players or big plays to change a game—football is particularly prone to the whims of Luck the Anarch. A reflection of this can be seen in the popular NFL expression, “Any given Sunday,” meaning that any team can beat any other team. When teams are roughly equal, the deciding factor is roughly luck. Indeed, the ball itself is a common metaphor for the absence of human control over events. Its bouncing is randomness itself.

But all sports must face the faceless Luck the Anarch. In soccer, my first love, goals can be maddeningly hard to score, even for great teams with great strikers. This flaw was on full display in the 2010 World Cup Final, where Spain almost had to go to penalty kicks (and might easily have lost) against a vastly inferior Dutch squad which was still in the game only due to systematic fouling. Baseball believes in something they call the “strike zone,” a fiction more preposterous than Hera. And not that it exists only in the mind of the umpire, which would be honest, at least, but that it has precise borders on which everyone should agree! Upon this fantasy rests the outcome of every single game.

Close basketball games can be decided by the way the ball bounces off the rim, by who has the ball or the possession arrow last, by whether or not a referee calls a borderline foul, by whether or not a good or bad player makes or misses an easy or difficult shot. According to the basketball statistics website 82games.com, the best “clutch shooters” have pretty unimpressive clutch shooting percentages. When games were on the line, the best two, Stephan Curry and LeBron James, were both under fifty percent. To put it simply, hitting a clutch shot is a very, very difficult thing to do. Even for a great player. When the ball leaves his hands, it isn’t flying free: it’s nestled between the wings of Luck the Anarch.

In a see-sawing contest, it becomes impossible to say which is the “better” team. Close games show that who is “better” and who is “worse” is not a particularly meaningful question. In fact, I would argue that the whole point of a sporting event is to eliminate, not answer the question.

Sports that attempt to discern the superior performers—judged sports like gymnastics or figure skating—produce notoriously unsatisfying results. This is also the problem that will forever haunt any system that the Bowl Championship Series uses to pick the top four teams and avoid a playoff. The whole point of a playoff is that it doesn’t have to produce the best team; it produces merely a winner.

* * *

My approach to sports may appear cynical, even nihilistic. What’s the point of trying, you might ask. But you shouldn’t. You have to try. You have to work hard. You have to hustle. It’s the only way to retain self-respect, for one thing. It’s also the only way to assert your humanity and stand up to that chaotic force that we all know is behind the curtain. Furthermore, these sports are beautiful and wonderful, and the human body is beautiful and wonderful, and teamwork can be so glorious that it’s pure spirit. That’s the way I feel when I watch Barcelona play futbol.

No, there’s no excuse but to give it your all, whether as a participant or a fan. To paraphrase a famous prayer, this is how we show the courage to change the things we can change. But the prayer also asks for the serenity to accept the things we cannot change. Luck is one of these things. More often than not, the outcome is another. Detach yourself from the outcome. To win is nothing. To lose is nothing.

* * *

Where I live, there are many wonderful bike and hike trails in the nearby country. One of them runs parallel to a railroad track for about a mile. The best rides are when I can race a train going in my direction. The big diesel trains usually go around 40 miles per hour, so we don’t race to see who is first to the finish line (the bridge where we part directions). The trains are a mile long, and my bike is 68 inches from tire to tire, so we race to completely cross the line. That’s what makes it a battle. It’s an exhilarating sport.

A friend of mine pointed out that it’s purely chance at what point I first meet the train. I may catch the engine, in which case I might win by a dozen boxcars. Or the race may begin a sixty cars further back. It’s purely arbitrary.

I thought for a moment, then said, “Yes. It’s just like racing a human.”

Any opponent is every bit the enigma of a nameless freight train. We don’t know the size of its engine, its capabilities, its limits, its mechanical flaws. We don’t know how much fuel it has, what are the pressures acting upon the engineer. We don’t know what mountains it had to climb or what prairies it coasted across. At the starting line, we don’t know at what point it is on its journey. The idea that any competition might be “fair” is an illusion. Fairness is an ideal. It doesn’t exist in the real world.

When we believe we won because we are good, smart, noble, brave, blessed by God, or hard-working, this is the stuff of farce. Especially if we are indeed all these things. But when we apply the same moral reasoning to our defeats, this is tragedy.

Sometimes we have it both ways. The winning team deserved the outcome. But for the losing team, victory “was not in the cards,” or “was not to be,” or perhaps, “the stars were not in their favor.” It’s interesting that for the winner, the corollary expressions are not clichés in our culture. Have you ever read a victory described as “it was to be,” or “it was in the cards”? We use this shabby thinking to blind ourselves to what we are really doing: covering everyone but the first-place finisher with a big, stinking pile of shame.

Deriving meaning about our worth from our personal competitions is not as silly as thinking our hometown team is a reflection of ourselves, or as ridiculous as thinking our national team demonstrates something about us as a people, but it’s an absurdity nonetheless.

Competitiveness may have some benefits, but taken to its usual extreme in our culture, it’s a sickness. Take a page from the playbook of that prototypical American, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion.”

If you define yourself, if you know who and what your are, what does it matter the chance comparative standing of others? Should you celebrate if you run a four-minute mile and win, and mope if you run 3:55 and finish last? Should you be proud if you find yourself in a weak competitive pool? Or berate yourself if those around you happen to be better, faster, stronger? Take yourself as your portion; it’s the only portion you’re ever going to get. We are left with only one rational conclusion: winning is for losers.


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Greatness and Mediocrity

I would like to add on to what Peter Greene wrote in a wonderful post on his Curmudgucation blog a couple months back, the “Myth of the Hero Teacher.

The successful district is not one with a hero teacher in every classroom. That’s a comic book. And in any case, even great teachers have bad days, bad months, bad years. If a hero teacher is the primary caretaker for an elderly parent with a long, slow decline, their heroism might be redirected. Getting divorced, having a child with cancer, suffering from depression can diminish greatness. A teacher might be great with some students but not others. Some teachers start out great, but burn out. Some teachers take a long time to become great.

If you have a school system in which students can only learn from the superhero teacher, what you have is a failing school system. You probably also have an unstable, unsafe community overwhelmed by the enormous societal problems in this country.

A great school district isn’t one with a great teacher in every room. A great school district is one in which mediocre students can learn from mediocre teachers. The great students will soar, the great teachers will inspire, but in a successful district, education will happen for pretty much everybody.

This does not in any way mean we should strive for mediocrity. Of course we should hire the very best people we can. And of course we should invest heavily in helping each teacher be the very best that they can be. And of course we should fire or counsel out the people who have no business being in the classroom. But even if you do all these things well, if your school district does not exist in a comic book or a movie, you will still end up with a range of teacher quality.

Education is a systemic endeavor, a community endeavor, a societal endeavor. The classroom is located within this context. It does not exist in some Marvel universe outside of the world and its problems.

The myth of the hero teacher is both a weapon and a smokescreen. It’s a handy club with which to beat teachers, and a distraction while reformers go about their real agenda: undermining school systems, weakening communities, and ignoring societal problems.


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Fear the Level Playing Field

It’s common knowledge that high school girls are outperforming boys, and that college enrollment is now close to 60 percent female. It is now easier for boys to get into most colleges than girls, as admissions offices strive to avoid hitting this 60%, what some call the “tipping point.” The debate over this ironic form of “affirmative action” has been curiously soft-spoken, but it has had one wonderful side-effect: it has exposed as a sham a traditional argument against affirmative action—that a person who is admitted due to their minority status will always feel that they don’t belong, that they were given an undeserved pass.

No one has used this argument to oppose this new almost-universal bias against women. Colleges quietly tilt the playing field and never, ever, ever worry that men will suffer from feelings of inadequacy.

Because the same people who used that argument have now forsaken it, we can see it as the shabby circular reasoning it always was. The argument might be paraphrased: just as these males shouldn’t feel inferior because they’re not inferior, those minorities should have felt inferior because they were inferior. It’s merely the members of a privileged group projecting their feelings of superiority onto perceived interlopers. George W. Bush himself embraced this argument—even though it was refuted by his own experience, when, as a “legacy,” he was comfortable being admitted to Yale over more qualified men and women.

The evaporation of this specious argument is an ironic delight. But there’s a much more important item absent from the debate about the decline in boys’ performance: the most obvious explanation. This explanation is not notable for its certainty—it may not be the true root cause. But, because it is so blindingly obvious, it should be the first hypothesis that we consider.

To use the level playing field analogy, let’s imagine a controlled experiment. In the past, the field was tilted: men were playing downhill, women uphill. Men were winning. Now the field is level. Women are winning. If nothing else has changed, it’s a matter of basic deduction: women are smarter.

Pundits have bent over backwards to find that something else that has changed. Personally, my first bet would be video games (which seem to me to be vacuum cleaners for gray matter), but this line runs into a powerful lobby and rarely gets far. It’s easier to attack education, which, we are told, favors girls—who are better at sitting and thinking. And don’t forget: most teachers are women. Yet this argument overlooks the fact that boys were doing fine in the same educational system in the past. And recent years have brought more “boy-friendly” strategies and more male teachers—with little effect.

It’s more likely that the decline (if there is one) is not in educators’ sensitivities but in boys’ self-discipline. This is a fascinating question, but enormously complicated, with a web of intermingling culprits (parents? popular music? atrocious diets? ADHD epidemics?). Such a nebula of causes is pretty much unfathomable, and certainly does not condense into saleable books and programs—the stuff of which careers in punditry are made. Far easier to attack something smaller and more subject to control: education. And conveniently, this plays into the talking points of those who have led the vilification of teachers in recent years, and also those political demagogues and business interests intent on dismantling public education.

Why do we shy away from the most obvious explanation of the data? As a man, I see no cause to take offense at such a suggestion. I’m smarter than many millions of men and women, and many millions of men and women are smarter than me. What does it matter that there’s a few million more women in the latter category? Or that, statistically, women are one or two or three percent more intelligent? In a world of seven billion people, such percentages are irrelevant.

Personally, I’m far from convinced that an innate intelligence difference is a significant cause of the problem. What is significant is our willful ignorance of the most likely explanation. If we allow our fear to blind us to the obvious, then how can we possibly look at the problem honestly? And what are the real motives behind our accusations and proposals?

A more likely culprit for boys’ decline, in my opinion, is a potent resentment caused by the loss of power and status, a sense of denied birthright that some boys and men feel nowadays: a thwarted entitlement; a haunting sense that we aren’t important anymore, and may not even be necessary. It’s an existential paranoia. Such feelings often run deep and hidden, and have great destructive power. Witness fanatical Muslim terrorists yearning for a return of some medieval caliphate, or our homegrown zealots fantasizing about the “next American century.” Lost power is a humiliation. It hurts.

My hunch may be way off. And there are probably dozens, if not hundreds of overlapping and intermingling causes. But I don’t think action needs to be so complicated. Maybe that too is blindingly obvious. If we can overcome tribalism, and begin to think of ourselves as part of one tribe of seven billion, we’d go a long way toward solving this and other problems. No gender, creed, race, or nationality produces inherently superior or inferior humans.

I remember, some years ago, being thunderstruck one day when I saw an advertising billboard featuring Joe Camel. He leaned on a sports car with a sexy woman in the background. I knew that I was part of the target audience: a male. Yet it amazed me. The advertisers were expecting me to identify with a camel, because it was male, rather than a human, because it was female. They were expecting my gender identity to trump my species identity! And it worked, of course it worked. Advertisers know how I think.

This knee-jerk response, splitting the world into male and female, sensing a tribal rift, this is the real problem. It’s not something that can be overcome easily or quickly, but it is something we can work on, something that we can face honestly.


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The Rich are Stupid

If we can slightly alter Forrest Gump’s famous maxim to “stupid is as stupid thinks,” then we must deduce that rich people are stupid. Not because they lack intelligence or make dumb choices, but because they tend to believe some silly things. My father, whose brilliance still occasionally breaks through the clouds of Parkinson’s Disease, explained to me why so many brilliant people were taken in by that unprepossessing louse Bernie Madoff: “Greed is a solvent for intelligence.” True enough. And wealth (the having of money) like greed (the wanting of money) also affects one’s thinking. If it is not a solvent for intelligence, it is at least a corroder of it.

I’d like to look at two of the more common fantasies that rich people actually believe. Like the Easter bunny, in exchange for credulity these fantasies deliver goodies as sweet and hollow as chocolate eggs. But these confections are of a moral order: they tickle our moral taste buds, our feelings about our purpose and goodness. Similar to candy, the sugar buzz passes quickly but leaves behind a little rot in the intellectual teeth with which we bite into reality.

And so I submit two fallacies of wealth: two easily disprovable humbugs that are accepted as unquestionable truth. Each of the fallacies is destructive in itself, but they also lead to some truly pernicious corollaries that bring us great peril.

 

FALLACY #1: WEALTH IS NECESSARY

This fantasy is taken to a comic extreme by the modern Republican Party, which calls the rich the “engines of economic growth” and “job creators.” This is self-serving for the billionaires who own the party, of course. But our economic system is called “capitalism,” not “wealthism.” What is needed for its smooth running is capital. And it doesn’t make any difference to the machine if its fuel comes from Warren Buffett, a mutual fund, taxation, or Kickstarter.

Wealth is inevitable in capitalism—it just isn’t a necessity. In fact, it is inevitable in any economic system. The rich we will always have with us. Some people, through intelligence, willpower, greed or cruelty will find ways to make a lot of money. No society has ever eradicated wealth, though some have professed to. In fact, in claiming to eradicate it, governments have created only totalitarianism based on lies, not to mention economic catastrophe. These are healthy, laudable impulses: owning property, improving one’s material circumstances, planning for the future, and increasing one’s comfort and leisure. But for these conditions to rise to the status of wealth, or our current super-wealth, is not necessary for the system to work.

I do not mean here to critique capitalism itself, nor to suggest that rich people are immoral. I propose no radical policy, but only reasonable honesty. Wealth is inevitable, and can be a positive force in a free market system. But we could get along just fine with a whole lot less of it.

 

COROLLARY 1A: WEALTH IS A MORAL GOOD

Once the first fallacy has taken root in the mind, the next step is almost subconscious. If wealth is necessary for the system, and the system is a moral good (a premise Americans accept as a given), then the corollary need not even be argued. It is self-evident. And now, if I am a wealthy person, I start to feel really good about my wealth. I can bear any exposure to the miseries of poverty without the slightest twinge of guilt. My attitude toward the poor is pity.

This corollary helps to explain the contempt the ascendant plutocrats have toward organized labor and civil servants—it’s more than just a power play to destroy a Democratic base. It also helps to explain the odd antipathy toward teachers that has taken hold of our popular discourse in recent years, and the rise of charter and for-profit schools. When wealth is a moral good, then the profit motive becomes a cleansing force. People who want to have a career in working for the common good (unless their profession has been politically marginalized by religion) are automatically suspect. Schools should be run for God or Mammon. There is no other motivation that makes sense in a plutocracy. That teachers, or letter carriers, or IRS agents, or cops, etc. should aspire to a solid middle-class lifestyle while doing something positive for society simply does not compute.

Eric Cantor, number two in the House majority leadership, used a frequent euphemism for wealth when he accused Obama of wanting to “more heavily tax the most successful Americans.” Obviously there is only one type of success in Cantor’s world. Mitt Romney has a house in that world too: The only possible explanation of criticism of his millions was “the bitter politics of envy.” Humanity is divided into those who succeeded in becoming rich, and those who failed.

 

COROLLARY 1B: POVERTY IS NECESSARY

COROLLARY 1C: POVERTY IS A MORAL GOOD

These two steps are trickier and I expect would be denied by many rich people. Certainly they would be refuted by many economists. But economists, as an economist might say, respond to incentives. Give a dismal scientist a cushy gig at the Heritage Foundation, or some such position of prestige and remuneration, and who couldn’t rationalize the trickle-down theory?

Their logic doesn’t hold. It is not possible for everyone to be rich. The current alarm over the environmental costs of the masses of China and India aspiring to Western lower-middle-class standards of living is evidence enough of this reality. The global economy is infinitely complex, and isn’t a simple zero-sum game. But at the same time, the using of resources by some people inevitably takes them away from others. It takes a lot of poverty to create a little wealth. In fact, we might even define wealth as the distribution of poverty to one’s advantage.

In the America of the last 30 years or so, the rise of the super-rich and their political power has coincided with the decline of unions, the stagnation or decline in middle and lower class wages, and an increase of poverty. This vast redistribution of wealth cannot possibly be coincidental.

Here is the argument of the plutocrats, an argument that is often hidden, even from themselves: The system is good; wealth is good; you cannot have wealth without poverty; therefore, poverty must be good. And now the class lines harden, resentment and suspicion rise, and America is no longer the land of opportunity, but has one of the lowest levels of class mobility among developed nations. The attitude of the rich toward the poor is now indifference. A shrug.

 

FALLACY #2: I DESERVE MY WEALTH

Funny as it ought to be, many people who inherited their money actually believe this. They might frame it in terms of “birthright” or a sense of belonging to a class or family, or they might see it as a sort of responsibility, a family burden, that absolves them of guilt. I suppose the foundation for this fantasy is slowly built up by the childhood years of being socialized to privilege, by the endless parade of enablers and fawners, by a limited circle of acquaintance, by the subtle blackmail of being liberated from the consequences of selfishness and mistakes, by the narrowing of options and increasing of pressure during adolescence. Just like those who are photographed with the cheesecake smile and the oversize Powerball check, the heir and heiress won the lottery. But they won it at birth and have 21 years to get used to the fact, which is why their record for holding on to the money is somewhat better than the hapless winners of huge government jackpots who so often squander it all within a few years.

A succinct expression of the heir’s justification was put forward by the Earl of Grantham, the grand lord of the BBC’s Downton Abbey series. His aristocratic family’s money is long gone. (It is not explained if this fortune was gained by slave plantations in the West Indies, by paying starvation wages in Yorkshire factories and mines, or by simply forcing his tenants to live in squalor.) He held on to the estate by marrying American money. He has no job other than being earl. The vast inequalities of his surroundings, the violently unfair system of which he is beneficiary—all this is rationalized when he says, “I am the caretaker or this fortune, not the founder of it.” To him, this is not a statement of the absurdity of luck, but of sacred duty.

I would argue that it isn’t possible to earn a million dollars. No single person does work that valuable. You can make a million dollars, you can get it, inherit it, or steal it, you can be paid it, but nobody can earn it. Nobody can deserve it.

Take, for example, three captains of industry who started with little and built vast fortunes: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs. Apologists who seek to justify such successes generally have two justifications: hard work and genius.

Hard work is cheap. Most people work hard. Hard work is, merely, the cost of admittance to be a full-fledged adult member of the human race. You either work hard, or you’re a loser. Bill Gates is legendary for his long hours. But did he work harder than a single mother of three with three jobs? Than his janitor? Than the seven-year-old who removes copper from the toxic remains of his trashed computer in an Indian slum? Than the Honduran woman who bends over a sewing machine for 14 hours a day so that he can buy his socks for $3.99 a pair? The world is crawling with people who day-to-day bust their butts for a pittance.

What about brilliance? Again, this is an overrated commodity when it comes to getting rich. Mark Zuckerberg appears to be a very smart guy, and he certainly had a very good idea. But as everyone knows he made his fortune by winning a race to get that idea started before anyone else. Facebook’s success was all about being first. Many people had more or less the same idea—some slower competitors may have even had better ideas—but Zuckerberg won the race. If his idea was so brilliant that no one else could have had it, then there would have been no race.

Steve Jobs is credited with having ideas that no one else would have had. That may be true, and his innovations are certainly wonderful. But the vast empire of Apple, Inc. is built not on genius, but on mundane business practices: low pay for the domestic workforce and sweatshop labor abroad; blackmail of cities to get tax breaks; hiding of the environmental and human costs of acquiring raw materials and of processing discarded equipment; monopolies; tax shelters; planned obsolescence; savvy marketing; top-notch lawyers; a $500,000 federally backed fund’s investment that made the Apple blossom special in 1984; and, as we have just recently learned, collusion with competitors to suppress salaries.

But the most absurd justification of all has been advanced by hedge fund CEOs to support their special tax breaks: they take risks (with other people’s money) for the good of society. As humorist Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up. If we really wanted to use risk-taking for the good of society as the criterion for deciding who should be in a lower tax bracket, what professions would you list as most deserving? Would hedge fund CEOs be in the top 1000? And here we see what it takes to be a successful Republican. Eric Cantor has shown that he is capable of standing in front of a microphone and saying that hedge funds deserve tax breaks . . . with a straight face. A rare gift.

What enables a person to get rich, I suspect (besides luck, or course) is most often a mind-set, a skill set, a type of intelligence, or simply a talent for making money. It’s a wonderful talent to have. It might be combined with brilliance or determination, or it might not. It might be channeled by noble ideals, or it might be purely selfish. It is value-neutral.

 

COROLLARY 2A: THE POOR DESERVE THEIR POVERTY

In narcissistic America, we have a cultish devotion to the fantasy of the self-made man. This conveniently places the cause of my good fortune within myself. The temptation to apply the same reasoning to the poor is irresistible. And now my pity and indifference have turned to contempt.

And here we can see the necessity of vicious Republican (and often Democratic) economic policies. Cruelty toward the poor is an integral part of their entire moral and intellectual framework. If they were to entertain the notion that the sufferings of the poor were due to external macro-forces (and not due to intrinsic micro-flaws in the characters of poor individuals), then they would be forced to question their cherished self-image.

Cruelty to the poor only makes them need to inflict more cruelty. They have to keep up the assault, they have to keep imagining enemies in every dark corner: communists, socialists, redistributors, welfare queens, collectivists, and other bogeymen. To do otherwise is to admit that their entire world might be an illusion. And people fear nothing more than the death of their illusions. To let up on the assault is to suggest that war may not be necessary. If they stop attacking, they may realize that their foes do not exist. The name for this situation is class warfare. But it feels so cleansing and natural to the plutocrats that they can’t see it as such. Not until someone complains: the rich call it class warfare when the poor fight back.

 

MORALS AND REASONS

“Man is a moral animal,” said the Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón, “abandoned in an amoral universe.” We need to believe that we are good, even while the amoral universe inhabits us and torments us with troubling compulsions. Many say that this moral insecurity is especially pronounced in America, which has a strong Calvinist streak and has always cast itself as a “city on a hill.”

Benjamin Franklin, with his tongue, as usual, firmly in his cheek, explained how one might reconcile these impulses. “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

In Franklin’s case, the thing he had “a mind to do” was to eat a fish, despite his vegetarian principles. Among the things his contemporary Americans had a mind to do were to enslave Africans and murder Indians. Preachers found some reasons (slavery in the Old Testament, for example) and politicians made others (manifest destiny). The things we all have a mind to do, then and now, are those potent amoral desires for wealth, sex, power, comfort, etc. If we can’t, like Buddha, rid ourselves of desires altogether, or, like Jesus, tame our desires to our morals . . . why, then we deify our desires and tame our morals to serve them. It’s a lot easier.