September 27, 2008

A good question

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore--
And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?--Langston Hughes


September 26, 2008

The letdown and the meltdown

Ithaca today, courtesy of wikipedia.

Have you ever wanted something badly for a long time only to be let down when you get it? That's what happened to Odysseus who for twenty years has longed for nothing so much as to see his home in Ithaca.

And when the voyage home finally happens, he totally missed it. The Phaeacians who have hosted the hero take him home on one of their swift sailing ships laden with gifts. During the journey,

an irresistible sleep fell deeply on his eyes, the sweetest,
soundest oblivion, still as the sleep of death itself.

He's still asleep when they land. The Phaeacians carry him and his gifts off the ship and leave without waking them. When he finally wakes up, he doesn't know where he is. In despair, he cried out as he did before:

"Man of misery, whose land have I lit on now?
What are they here--violent, savage, lawless?
or friendly to strangers, god-fearing men?"

As Jonathan Shay has noted, it's not uncommon for veterans returning from combat to have trouble recognizing the place they left behind. And for many, as for Odysseus, some of the worst problems occur when than finally get there.

BACK TO THE BAILOUT. El Cabrero and amigos from WV Citizen Action Group, the state AFL-CIO and Direct Action Welfare Group held a press conference yesterday about the Wall Street bailout proposal. We called for greater regulation of the finance industry, limits on CEO pay for companies getting corporate welfare, an equity share for American taxpayers, help for people dealing with foreclosure, and a stimulus package targeted at those who need it most.

This was part of a series of events all around the country calling for the same things. Here's CNN coverage of national efforts.

It now looks like a deal almost reached in Congress went up in smoke.

ON TOPIC, here economist Dean Baker's latest piece on the bailout and here's Paul Krugman's column on the need for grownups.

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE RANCH, here's a snapshot from the Economic Policy Institute about unemployment trends across the states.

URGENT DINOSAUR UPDATE. The latest discovery is the smallest American dinosaur, which was chicken sized. This means the chickens on Goat Rope Farm are dinosaur sized.


September 25, 2008

Do you want fries with that?

The Colossus of Rhodes in ancient times was a statue of the sun god Helios.

A classical theme in many myths and folktales is the "whatever you do, don't do this" scenario. You can pretty much bet that people are going to wind up doing what they're not supposed to.

Think Adam and Even in paradise eating the forbidden fruit or Pandora opening the forbidden jar (it wasn't a box in the original myth) or Bluebeard telling his wife not to unlock the door to a forbidden room.

In the Odyssey, the hero has been warned by Circe not to harm or allow his men to harm the cattle of the sun god Helios, aka Hyperion:

Leave the beasts unharmed, your mind set on home,
and you all may still reach Ithaca--bent with hardship,
true--but harm them in any way, and I can see it now:
your ship destroyed, your men destroyed as well!
And even if you escape, you'll come home late,
all shipmates lost, and come a broken man.

You guessed it. It ain't going to be pretty.

After Odysseus and his men suffer through the dangers of Scylla and Charybdis, they come to the island of Thrinacia, home of the sun god's herd. In one of many classic failures of leadership, Odysseus yields to his exhausted men in stopping at the island instead of pulling rank and ordering them to sail on to safety. All he does is extract a promise from them to leave the cattle alone.

The plan was just to stay there for one night, but the winds shifted for a whole month. Meanwhile food supplies were used up. While Odysseus wigs out and nods off, his hungry men make the fatal decision.

Helios is outraged, as is Zeus himself. Terrible signs appear: the meat itself begins to moo and the hides of the slain cattle crawl on the ground. For six days, they all feast on the forbidden food.

And, as promised, when they finally do begin to sail, the ship is destroyed in a storm and Odysseus alone survives to wash up on the island of the goddess Calypso, where he will stay seven years.

This episode concludes Odysseus' own retelling of his story to the Phaeacians, where he arrived after finally escaping from Calypso's island. The final part of the story is about to begin as the Phaeacians are about to finally take him home to Ithaca.

Talk about a long strange trip...

SPEAKING OF LONG STRANGE TRIPS, I'm ready for this administration's joy ride to be over. Here's what we could have done with the cost of the proposed Wall Street bailout:

51.6 million people with health care for four years OR

181.2 million homes with renewable electricity for four years OR

2.9 million elementary school teachers for four years OR

27 million four-year scholarships for university students

All this is from the National Priorities Project. Click here to see what the costs would be to your state or district.

WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT: Call Congress toll free at 1-800-473-6711 and urge a real solution that includes greater oversight, regulation and accountability of the finance industry, help for people being hurt by the crisis and investments in economic recovery. The number is provided by the American Friends Service Committee.

THE ROLE OF DEREGULATION in the credit crisis is discussed here.

NEEDED: A NEW NEW DEAL. Here's a Gazette op-ed by amigo Gary Zuckett on fixing the economy.


September 24, 2008

Some days you eat the bear...

The Gentle Reader may perhaps have noticed that sometimes there are no pleasant alternatives and any course of action is going to be nasty. The Odyssey of Homer gives a great image for those occasions. I am referring, of course, to the dual dangers of Scylla and Charybdis.

Charybdis is a whirlpool that can suck ships straight to the bottom of the sea. Scylla is a twelve-legged six-headed monster with six long necks that likes to eat people. And Odysseus and his men have to sail between them.

Oh yeah, there was one other option. They could have tried to sail between the Clashing Rocks, which squish anything that goes between them. "Not even the birds can escape them...," as Circe warns Odysseus before the event.

You takes your pick. Either lose the whole ship or expect six more men to wind up as somebody's dinner.

There are times in life when even courage and cunning can't get you through. Odysseus asks Circe whether he might overcome Scylla with force of arms and is rebuked:

'So stubborn!' the lovely goddess countered.
'Hell-bent yet again on battle and feats of arms?
Can't you bow to the deathless gods themselves?
Scylla's no mortal, she's and immortal devastation,
terrible, savage, wild, no fighting her, no defense--
just flee the creature, that's the only way.
Waste any time, arming for battle beside her rock,
I fear she'll lunge out again with all of her six heads
and seize as many men...'

In typical fashion, Odysseus neglects to inform his men of the danger and likewise ignores Circe's advice. He puts on his armour and attempts in vain to resist. Scylla gets a good meal:

Just as an angler poised on a jutting rock
flings his treacherous bait in the offshore swell... now they writhed,
gasping as Scylla swung them up her cliff, and there
at her cavern's moth she bolted them down raw--
screaming out, flinging their arms toward me,
lost in that mortal struggle...
Of all the pitiful things I've had to witness,
suffering, searching out the pathways of the sea,
this wrenched my heart the most.

Spending much time in Scylla/Charybdis situations can drive anyone over the edge of sanity. It's something that happens fairly regularly in war, causing traumatic stress the effects of which can last for years on those who survive them.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, the American people are being asked to sail between the Scylla of a $700 billion bailout for Wall Street and the Charybdis of a massive recession. This time, there's another alternative, i.e., a package that includes an economic stimulus aimed at ordinary Americans, accountability and stricter regulation for failing firms, and help for homeowners facing foreclosure. Tomorrow is likely to be a national day of action, with protests around the country and call-ins to Congress. Stay tuned for more.

NO BLANK CHECKS. Here's Dean Baker's latest on the Wall Street bailout.

AND MORE. Here's more bad stuff 'bout the bailout from Alternet.

OK, JUST ONE MORE on socialism for the rich.



September 23, 2008

Strapped to the mast, the siren song of the Wall Street bailout, and more

"Ulysses and the Sirens" by John William Waterhouse, courtesy of wikipedia.

"Siren" is a word that entered the English language from the Odyssey although the contrast between the real ones and the mythological ones is pretty stark. Sirens on emergency vehicles and loud and aversive, nothing that most people would like to listen to day in and day out.

The mythological sirens are mysterious female beings whose beautiful singing lures sailors to certain death. Their song is irresistible.

Odysseus, forewarned by the goddess Circe, puts beeswax in the ears of his men but is--of course--too driven by curiosity to miss out. He has his men tie him to the mast with strict orders to ignore his entreaties to let him go.

This is a great image. I've always found it compelling and have been in situations where I hear things that are tempting and distracting but have to focus on the task at hand or the journey home. It's a kind of universal thing. But, as with many places in the Odyssey, the danger of the sirens has a special meaning for a combat veteran like Odysseus trying to get home.

What did they sing? Here goes:

"Come closer, famous Odysseus--Achaea's pride and glory--
moor your ship on our coast so you can hear our song!
Never has any sailor passed our shores in his black craft
until he has heard the honeyed voices pouring from our lips,
and once he hears to his heart's content sails on, a wiser man."

Of course they are lying. But what makes them so dangerous is their subject:

"...We know all the pains that Achaeans and Trojans once endured
on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so--
all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!"

The danger they represent is the danger of getting stuck in the past, of going over the scenes of war over and over again, of obsessing over what "really" happened, of missing out on the present. As Jonathan Shay puts it

The "voice" of the Sirens, scholars tell us, is the "voice" of the Iliad, the voice of a wartime past experienced as more real and meaningful than the present.

If Odysseus is going to make it home, he as to put the drive for kleos or glory behind him. (Note: kleos specifically means living in such a way as to be remembered in song after one dies.) This was also the theme of his encounter with the ghost of Achilles in the underworld in last Friday's post. Part of what he has to put behind him is the romantization of death and war as something romantic and glorious.

Next time: Scylla and Charybdis.

SPEAKING OF SIRENS--the US Congress would do well not to listen to the Bush Wall Street bailout plan/siren song. Short version:

*No blank-check bailout for Wall Street. Any plan to save the economy must put Main Street first.

*Congress should not blindly rush to pass bad legislation. They should take their time and get it right – even if it means a delay in adjournment.

*Putting Main Street first means, at a minimum: a) much more oversight, control over and regulation of financial institutions; b) limitations on CEO compensation; c) an economic recovery package to get the economy moving again; d) provisions to protect people facing foreclosures.

By the way,here's Dean Baker on the elements of a progressive response.

THIS WOULD NOT BE COOL. LITERALLY. Abrupt climate change is a distinct possibility.

MISMEASUREMENT. This Boston Globe commentary highlights the obsolete official federal poverty measure. This might be good to update since it looks like lots of us are going to get poorer unless things change.

ON A DIFFERENT NOTE, pleasant smells can make for pleasant dreams.


September 22, 2008

Metaphor and reality

El Cabrero would like to thank regular readers of Goat Rope for putting up with a long series on the Odyssey of Homer. As I've written before, I think this epic of homecoming has universal human appeal but also can shed light on the difficulty many veterans have on returning from war.

I happened to grow up between the wars, but my father served in World War II, having enlisted shortly after asking, and I quote, "Where the #*%@ is Pearl Harbor?" He made it back in one piece but had trouble with his homecoming throughout his life. So have some other people I know who served in Vietnam or Iraq.

To recap, many of the misadventures Odysseus had on his long way home can be seen as metaphors for the many different ways people can lose their homecoming. Indeed, Odysseus can be seen as an example of how not to do it. As Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who works with veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome, wrote

Odysseus was absent from home for twenty years. Ten of those were the Trojan War itself. The remaining ten years were...what? The only account we have of them is Odysseus' fabulous tales told to the Phaeacian courtiers in Books 9-12. Might they have been ten years at home, but not home? Ten years of wildness, drinking, drugging, living on the edge, violence, sex addiction, not-so-petty crime, and of "bunkering in," becoming unapproachable and withdrawn? If so would not Odysseus have been just as "absent" a son to Anticleia, just as "absent" a husband to Penelope, and "absent" a father to Telemachus as if he still had been overseas? Could not these ten years have been told in metaphor as the very same story told in the Odyssey?

Get ready for the sirens...

THE DEBT OF NATIONS. Here's a view from Canada on the current US financial crisis. And here's Paul Krugman with more of the same.

HOW MANY ECONOMISTS DOES IT TAKE to change a light bulb? For many, the answer until recently was "None. The market will take care of it." As this item from the UK points out, it won't.

LOSING IT. The number of foreclosures in West Virginia has been greatly underreported, according to an investigation by the Charleston Gazette.

FEAR THIS. Here's more on the recent study of the psychology and politics of fear mentioned here last week.