13 October 2010


DISAPPOINTMENT. Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe -- "America is disappointed. The economic recovery, such as it is, has produced few jobs and little growth, the war in Afghanistan is going poorly, and Washington's culture, which President Obama took office promising to reform, is as vitriolic and paralyzed as ever .... There's no question that the president has failed to live up to the expectations of many of his supporters -- expectations he created with his empyrian campaign rhetoric. But it turns out that human beings are very easy to disappoint. Research suggests that even when people know that someone has nothing but bad options to choose from, they still blame the decider for a bad outcome. And while disappointment and regret and even anger are often spoken about in similar terms, psychologists see them as distinct emotions, triggered by different events and motivating us to act in different ways .... And in general, the disappointed seem to prefer to blame people over circumstances."

I've been saying ever since the 2008 election campaign that if Obama were to win, he would face YEARS of struggle to overcome the lies, greed, ignorance and overweening culturocentrism inherent in Republican politics. Twenty years of Reagan, Bush and Bush have trashed America's economy, not to mention the already-shaky esteem with which we are regarded by the rest of the world. For a brief period in the 1990s, Bill Clinton was able to perform some damage control (for the country, if not for his personal life), but it took no time at all for GW Bush to squander the $3 trillion budget surplus which Clinton's policies created, and run the country to the edge of bankruptcy. And we all know the tried-and-true solution to taking the minds of the voters off their economic woes -- start a war or two.

So as we approach the end of the second year of Obama's first term in office, let's cut the man some slack. A full eight years as president would hardly be sufficient to show us the light at the end of the tunnel. All you Tea Party airheads and conservative obstructionists out there, please stop shooting the messenger. Rather, look inside yourselves, and see whether maybe, just maybe, your own expectations require adjustment.

THE HUMANITIES' DECLINE. In The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives, NYTimes columnist Stanley Fish shines a much-needed spotlight on the decline of public investment in the humanities, disciplines such as ancient and modern languages, literature, law, history, philosophy, and visual and performing arts. In a sterile world whose power brokers seem to be mostly business moguls, attorneys and politicians, if it doesn't produce a buck, it isn't worth support. University administrators, Fish argues, need to take the bull by the horns and aggressively explain to policy makers the true and abiding value of the humanities, to help all people to "understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds or even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene."

I couldn't agree more. There is an analogy in government. The concept of every department producing a balanced budget is a fundamental fallacy. When it comes to functions ranging from roads to health care to public education to emergency services, there IS NO BALANCE SHEET. We pay taxes, and we receive human services in return. Those taxes enable our nation to function in the present, and they also are an investment in our future viability. That is how citizenship works. Period.

Similarly, in academia there is more to life than profit. Our understanding of how the world functions has been obscenely twisted by the machinations of economists of every stripe, most especially by the bottom-line mentality of capitalism. How one dimensional, gray and predictable our lives would be without the dynamic perspectives of art, fine music, theater, literature, history, languages. Our world is intensely rich in its diversity. We don't learn, we don't broaden our horizons, we don't dare to dream, if we restrict ourselves to only making a profit. Just as with governmental services, the humanities in education are an investment in ourselves and in our children. Where is the profit in Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony? What is the value of an art museum, or learning to speak Spanish, or coming to understand the philosophical underpinnings of our own culture? The answer is clear -- we enrich our own spirits, our own intellects, our own hearts. Priceless.

VIDEO BONUS. Fruit and vegetable decomposition, time lapse. A bowl of fruits and veggies, recorded over 74 days, with one frame shot every 40 minutes, played back at 30 frames per second. It is amazing to contemplate the millions of microbes at work, and to notice toward the end of this 1:37 film the sudden regeneration of new life. Enjoy.

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