America’s Cult of Ignorance

asimov-culture-of-ignoranceIsaac Asimov wrote in the 1980s: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

He describes a sad history of vilifying erudition, then Adlai Stevenson, now Barrack Obama; as well as unthinkingly accepting the proudly nonintellectual like yesteryear’s George Wallace or today’s Donald Trump.

The hippies gave us “Don’t trust anyone over 30”. By the time they were well into their 30s, community began to fall away to isolation. They shed their beads, donned work wear and started saying “Don’t trust the experts”. Hence the onset of the age of fear of elitists.

In 1980, Asimov wrote, “As soon as someone shouts “elitist” it becomes clear that he or she is a closet elitist who is feeling guilty about having gone to school.” While this is still true of elitist hunters within academia, it is also now true that many calling out the sin of elitism are expressing a deeply-suppressed shame for their own ignorance.

Asimov’s concerning message of decades ago has only amplified and accelerated in the current age of instant and global communication. Today’s levels of national willful ignorance and anti-intellectualism have risen to a legitimate national security risk.

Life Cubicled

Actual conversation overheard at work today:

A: I think I’ll just stop off an pick up some KFC.

B: (palpable disgust) Eww…

A: You don’t like KFC?

B: (sustained palpable disgust) I HATE KFC.

A: Oh… I like their cole slaw.

B: Oh, I love their cole slaw.


A: Yeah…


B: (absolutely no irony) And their chicken.


Extra! Extra! Trump’s Press Secretary is a Pernicious Little Twit


Despite Trump’s boisterous claim that he knows words, the best words, he seems all to reliant on others to speak for him. At Trump’s first press conference, he had an attorney and a stack of papers do most of his talking. The stack of papers was far more succinct and on-message than either Trump or the attorney. And today, his first full day in office, he had his press secretary Sean Spicer speak for him. Having a press secretary speak for you to the press is actually a perfectly appropriate thing to do. Having Sean Spicer speak for you seems particularly reckless. Leaving the press corps waiting is also typical as schedules are often hard to manage for any administration. However, on the first day, the lengthy delay seemed intended as a punishment to a media that Trump openly disdains. Then Spicer made clear the intentions when he came out practically splattering the first row of journalists with the administration’s contempt.

He approached the mic a little breathless and understandably nervous. Then he opened his mouth and his speech quickly took the tone of a petulant rant. He spoke quickly, reluctant to take a breath for fear a media terrorist might lob a bomb in the form of a question. The entire event was organized to address “a little bit of the coverage of the last 24 hours”. The word coverage was spoken as one might say the word scabies.

The tone was set and the press corps seemed to push against the back rests of their chairs, seeking some distance from a man who may in fact be a little unhinged. According to his website, Spicer is “a seasoned communicator and strategist who has been combining his communications skills, creative sense, political savvy and issue knowledge to create, lead and implement successful public policy and issue campaign efforts for over fifteen years.” Fifteen years to craft this public relations tantrum is fifteen years lost. Far from a seasoned communicator, Spicer comes across mush-mouthed and far too reliant on reading rather than speaking.

Almost immediately he put forth rather confounding explanations for the smaller-than-normal crowds, widely reported, at Trump’s inauguration the previous day. To explain the biased images of sparse crowds, Spicer seemed at first to describe some new environmental consideration for our National Parks. However, it wasn’t, and it is hard to tell exactly what he was describing.

“This is the first time in our nation’s history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass in the [National] Mall. That had the effect of highlighting any areas where people were not standing, while in years past, the grass eliminated this visual.”

A good amount of thought and effort went into crafting this spin. The result is bewildering. The Trump administration, as the man himself, seems unable to ignore any perceived slight. Rather than ignore it and move on, they call a press conference to highlight it, as well as draw attention to Trump’s own hypersensitivity. It begs the question how they will be able to handle an actual crisis.

Then Spicer cited fencing and security as the next conspirators hell bent on limiting Trump’s crowd size. Spicer spoke of inaccurately reported numbers of people at the event. He practically screeched, No one had numbers!” It was akin to a three year-old yelling, “But I don’t like my vegetables!” as if desperately and loudly stating something as fact can make unpleasant situations go away. Spicer went on to say the National Park Service controls access to the mall but does not release numbers. Ergo it is impossible to determine how many people may be in or around that area at any given time, and it was the height of irresponsibility for the press or the people to attempt such impossible estimations. Spicer stated this impossibility also applies to today’s Women’s March around the world. Apparently we will just never know. It is one of those divine natural mysteries that even science can’t overcome.

However, Spicer then proceeds to do the impossible and make an estimate of crowd size. By determining how many people can fit in the area, he was able to come up with, by his calculus, an accurate number: 720,000 souls. Their crack team also deduced that there were 103,000 more people on the D.C. Metro for Trump’s Inauguration Day than President Obama’s (Wrong!). So much for the impossible. I told you they put a lot of effort and thought into this response. In fact, by Spicer’s loud logic, Trump garnered “the largest audience to witness an inauguration. Period!”

Spicer then summarized Trump’s speech at CIA headquarters, with 400 in attendance who afterward gave a 5 minute standing ovation. There is a lot of emphasis on numbers here as well as devotion and sycophancy. Perhaps Trump will be able to cobble together a jobs policy that can put America’s unemployed back to work as paid enthusiastic audience members for speech rallies. Don’t think of it as a hand out or a hand up, but really just many happy hands clapping.

Spicer, the veteran communicator, then criticized the Democrats for stalling on the confirmation of Mike Pompeo as CIA Director (with no mention of the ten month block his party threw on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee). “That’s what you guys should be writing and covering instead of sowing divisions about tweets and false narratives,” Spicer spat. Perhaps journalists should heed this last point. He does seem at least knowledgeable, if not deft, with the false narrative.

At this point, Sean Spicer finally stopped reading his prepared statement. He reported upcoming events. Trump called Trudeau. Oh, and apparently Mexico has a new president as well. Someone named Uh-Na-Piña Nahto. Trump will receive Great Britain’s Teresa May, obliged by our two nations’ special relationship, as the first foreign head-of-state to pay a visit. Also, the whole administration has an ethics briefing tomorrow. Presumably they will discover they have none. Let’s hope that by then someone more palatable than Sean Spicer has been pegged to communicate that to the American press and people.

A Journey Back in Time

Recently I stumbled across an old travel log I wrote back in October of 2006 about a slow river trip in Myanmar. Much has changed there in the past decade, but the quiet riverways are still there for those who need a break from city stress.

Slow Boat Through Northern Rakhine State in Myanmar

 There’s not much to do on a slow boat trip up a long river in Myanmar.  There is no shuffleboard deck.  No waiters in neatly pressed white shorts to serve cold rum punch or garden salads, which is not to say there is nothing to eat or drink.  No reggae band to make the sweat feel worth it.  Thankfully, there is plenty to see even during the thunderous heart of monsoon season.  The landscape is an idyllic pastoral utopia of green, lush, fertile earth that literally erupts with life.  The river, its banks and surrounding paddies dominate the entertainment program.  Rice farmers work as they have for thousands of years.  Draft animals slop through the slough.  The only motor to be heard is that of our big rusty boat toiling upriver from Sitwe to Mrauk Oo.  The constantly reliable low churning drone of the engine distracts the animals and the farmers as they stop a moment to appraise the passing faces.  Then they are back to their task before our gentle wake even reaches their shore.  The hours tick away quickly as the passing view mesmerizes the passengers bend after bend.  Periodically the boat slows to a halt at a rickety wooden jetty where some passengers disembark and others hop aboard.  Chickens change hands and fish mongers ply passengers with salted fish on a stick.  Hardboiled eggs are just as popular. 

Occasionally a thunderclap introduces a fresh barrage of rain.  Passengers curl under umbrellas and raincoats.  The deck is covered but the tempest laughs at roofs and simply makes a sidelong approach.  Yet, a bundle of three opened umbrellas makes a rather effective shelter.  We are tightly packed and neighbors naturally form umbrella linked alliances.  Like the defensive position of a broad-shielded phalanx, we generally successfully repel the volley of water.  These frequent downpours set the schedule between eating, dozing and battening down under any available plastic.  After the rains retreat the people are enervated and activity swells into almost a carnival like atmosphere as people reposition themselves to share food and talk about anything and everything.  Burmese sarongs or longyis are retied around thin waists, wet clothes are flung over rusty side rails.  People laugh at seemingly everything. 

            After a while a lull sneaks aboard and the people begin to doze in heaps all about the deck.  One old man stands out.  He is moving about stepping over lazing families.  Almost frantically the old man worked, running worn wires round the roof beams and connecting them to an old scratchy speaker box on one side of the boat and an old recycled camp-style megaphone on the other.  The initial squelch from the speaker system roused even those most deeply dozing.  We positioned himself on the floor in the middle of the rousing crowd.  He held a bulging bag in his lap and a small portable cassette player on a knee.  Knowing most people were no fully intrigued, he pushed play and a sound spewed from the speakers that would have sent any cats aboard swimming home in fright.  The emanating incantations seemed to even scare the ubiquitous clouds away for a time.  The skies would not steal the old man’s thunder.  Everyone was awake now as the sounds of Buddhist prayer-chanting mixed with varied strings loomed over the entire boat.  The chants evoked auspiciousness and health.  Suddenly the man pushed the stop button and a silence hung in the air.  He took a moment to unplug the cassette player and replace it with a microphone deftly pulled from his bagful of tricks.  Another ear-splitting squelch underscored the anticipation, followed by a theatrical pause that had the crowd nearly pulling their hair out. 

            The man stood slowly placing his bag at his feet, straightening his neatly wrapped longyi and flattening his neatly tailored though slightly threadbare Burmese waste coat.  Suddenly he unleashed a barrage of phrasings that tested the parameters of the speakers’ range.  He was indeed animated.  He pointed at children, he pointed at old ladies.  He swept a thin over the heads of the crowd.  They smiled and laughed drew in quick short breaths as he jutted a pointed finger in their collective face.  He was a modern day medicine man hawking his magical cure-all:  Dr. Doe Thon’s 8-Herbs Tooth Powder.  This was to be used as a toothpaste for of course, clean healthy strong teeth.  The benefits don’t stop there.  Usage also increases hair growth, general virility and especially aids in the preservation of internal organs.  He constantly referred to himself as a proof-positive example of the powders powers.  It was clear that he had his own teeth.  With all the rattling of his jaw and jowls it seems his teeth were quite strong indeed.  His hair was jet black suspiciously with no streaks of gray.  It couldn’t be described as luxuriant but not as sparse as the hair on most 70-year-old heads.  He was a bit on the thin side but his overt enthusiasm belied vim and vigor.  The powder came in small sachets with a conventional label featuring a black and white photo of a much younger Dr. Doe.  Each packet cost 200 kyats or around 15 cents.  Dr. Doe passed a number of samples around the audience.  Many of the mesmerized masses eagerly perused the packet and sniffed at the powder inside.  A few tasted a pinch to discover a not-unpleasant flavor.  Alas, only a few were sold.  After interest in his pitch waned and another lull was imminent, the old man at down again.  He carefully replaced the samples in the big bulging bag of packets.  The speakers were taken down and the worn wire wound in a neat bundle.  He replaced his microphone in the same bag.  He patiently rewound his introductory cassette tape with a long fresh cheroot, before patiently and contentedly smoking it. 

            After a time, the boat was silent again as people lounged and lazed across the deck.  The old man laid down with his head pillowed by his bulging bag of powder sachets.  A thunderclap again forewarned of looming rain clouds.  Dr. Doe Thon didn’t have an umbrella.  He woke and began to look for a dry haven.  Suddenly a number of people nearby invited him to join them under their broad shield of umbrellas.  He disappeared under the protective dome.  He was sure to bring his bag within as well.  A few more sales were made there under those umbrellas.  When the rain finally cleared those folks came out with bright fresh smiles, firmly convinced in the veracity of Dr. Doe Thon and his 8-Herbs Tooth Powder. 

            A slow moving meandering boat trip upriver is a momentous way to see the best of Myanmar.  There is very little to do but eat, sleep and see.  Fortunately, the food is good, the rest is sound and the sights are surreal.  After many hours the boat reaches Mrauk Oo and the passengers slowly disembark and begin walking home.  Dr. Doe Thon walked away slowly along a muddy road.  He carried his heavy bags and tucked under a thin arm was a new umbrella someone had given him.  The sun was shining momentarily but there were other clouds that would have their way.  Dr. Doe was well prepared with a proven cure-all and a sound umbrella.   

Pay-to-Play Olympian

Di SilvestriAdmittedly, I didn’t recognize the flag of Dominca when I saw it waving at the opening ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. I did recall that Dominica is a small Caribbean island nation and that was about it. The man waving the flag did not look Caribbean. But the world is a beautiful mix of peoples, and race does not tell one’s full history. The event in which he would compete, cross country skiing, isn’t a Caribbean sport. Yet, Jamaica had famously produced a bobsled team that won the hearts of the world, even if it won no gold. When the commentators noted that the man carrying the flag wasn’t actually Dominican, I was curious. They went on to explain that Gary Di Silvestri has no direct link to Dominican ancestry. Rather he is a Staten-Island born, Georgetown/Cornell educated investment banker who blessed Domica with a little philanthropic benevolence. For this he was awarded citizenship. The rest is Olympic history.

Dominica is a small island nation. Unlike many of its more famous neighbors, Dominica is not blessed (or cursed depending on your perspective) with tourist-attracting idyllic beaches. It does however have hot springs, water falls, lush tropical forests and thankfully a national park system to try to protect these treasures. This is terrific for the natural environment and wildlife, but essentially useless to a country’s growth percentage. A nation will make money where it can. The Commonwealth of Dominica does so, as many of her neighbors, by offering tantalizing tax havens where accounts are officially sealed from outside eyes. They also offer economic citizenship to those seeking a valid second passport. For a cash contribution, Dominica will waive the 7-year residency requirement to gain citizenship. This costs $105,000 for a single applicant. Tack on another $25,000 for a spouse or dependents. This allows the Dominican “citizen” to travel to around 90 other nations and territories without a visa. This is just the sort of benefit that would appeal to the kind of people who feel the need to seek tax havens in the first place. Dominca has specifically designated Government Approved Economic Citizenship agents to help clients, or soon-to-be citizens, with all the paperwork.

This is likely the sort of philanthropic outreach that garnered di Silvestri his Dominican citizenship. It likely required deeper philanthropic passion to secure the title of Olympian. Although, di Silvestri claims the Dominca Olympic Committee approached him and his wife, knowing they were cross-country skiers and apparently the best Domincan snow-sporters in the world to represent their country. Granted, di Silvestri and his wife must be able skiers; they did have to qualify to compete after all. However, this pay-to-play approach seems to undermine the meaning of the Olympics. Before one can carry the flag of a nation in the Olympics, one must carry the flag in their hearts. That is not to say there is no room for immigrants in national sports. Countries like the U.S. and Canada would not be the winter Olympic powerhouses they are without immigrant national athletes. These athletes worked hard in the nations they came to represent.

Of course there are occasional situations where there is an athlete who plays the official citizenship card to represent a smaller country with a conveniently less dense pool of competition. More often than not, there is a family connection. The Briton who chooses to represent Egypt where he/she or his/her parents were born, as just one example. Gary di Silvestri’s Olympic scheme is something else entirely. It is in particularly poor taste because, at its essence, it is a rich guy taking advantage of a poor country to boost his own interests.

In a way, it is like modern global economics itself. Wealthy bankers boosting their bottom lines on the backs of the browbeaten. This pay-to-play reality also embodies, more and more, the Olympics as a political power. The oligarchs of Russia have the cash to finance the games and subsequently to silence, or at least marginalize any critics. The rest of the world for the most part looks the other way, because after all everyone is going to benefit from this little quadrennial banquet.

There has developed a disconnect between Olympians and Olympics. As the Olympics as a corporate machine becomes increasingly corrupt, the Olympians themselves still represent the best of who we are and what we can achieve through hard work and fair play. Di Silvestri undercuts this balance and puts the athlete square on the side of the opportunistic corporation.

Occupy Portland at Risk of Being… Well, Occupied.

There has been growing concern that the Democratic Party will surreptitiously appropriate the Occupy Wall Street movement. However, Chris Hedges assured readers recently that the great groundswell of protest growing in the “squares, parks and plazas across the nation in defiance of the corporate state” are in no danger of being co-opted. He asserts that rather than power elites, it is everyday citizens alone “who hold out the possibility of salvation”.
Hedges may be right in this regard. However, in Portland, Oregon’s Occupy Portland movement there exists the genuine possibility of hijacking. This threat is not so clandestine either. Whatever hidden maneuverings the power elite may be conducting, there are some very overt groups that seems to be monopolizing the popular demonstration. The Dirty, the Drunk and the Deranged have swept in en masse and would appear to outside observers to be the primary constituents of this movement. Portland is an interesting mix of folks. Portlanders are proud. Many more support the Occupy movement than might be apparent from a drive by of the occupied parks. More mainstream Portlanders would like to participate more directly and more long-term. However, frankly many are just turned off by what they see in the park. It’s not kind; it’s not fair; yet it’s the truth.

It seems as though a tale of two parks has developed over the past two weeks. Today the park is considerably well organized. Two weeks ago on day two as occupiers settled in, there were far fewer people, but still enough to warrant serious logistical planning. These were just developing and seemed worryingly inadequate. It appeared at first that the occupation might be in danger of collapsing in upon itself for lack strategic management. Now two weeks later, the management is impressive. People are working efficiently in shifts to feed the occupiers and clean up after them as well. In those first days, there were far fewer people but far more impromptu discussions and debates. Now there are four times as many people, but talking circles seem a much rarer occurrence. Where they have gotten their logistical business in order, the occupiers may have sacrificed crowd quality for quantity. It is hard to discern between the activists and the merely active (often barely active at that). Upon first glance they all look much the same. Sadly, they are for the most part divisible into the three aforementioned camps: dirty, drunk and deranged. This makes one all-the-more grateful that they at least got those sanitation logistics sorted.

Now, when I say dirty, I don’t mean a group of people that have been camping out in the park for three weeks, bathing only occasionally, if at all, a little funky, but generally presentable. I mean a mass of people who choose to express a lifelong pride in the fact that they have small critters living in their hair. For the most part these are decent, intelligent, articulate and impassioned people who simply lack much regard for personal hygiene. No big deal. They have always been a ubiquitous assemblage in Portland, and the city would be a sadder place if they were to all suddenly shower and don suits. Their seeming indifferent approach to life and appearance is in its way (ironically) refreshing. However, once assembled in single locale they resemble not just a single part of the whole, but a vast swath of a town of transients. It’s as if Lady Liberty said, “Give me your unwashed masses and I will stash them away over in Lonsdale Park in Portland, OR.” Most of these folks are not, in fact, homeless; many of them are. The point is that they all appear to be. As unfair or unkind as it may be, it frightens off much of the more presentable public – a contingent of our city that wants its voice heard as well.

If that is not enough to keep “mainstream” Portlanders at home, there is the second co-opting group: The Drunk. Now, when I say drunk, I say so in relative terms, “drunk” being the baseline. I also say “drunk” with a twinge of hope that they are merely drunk and not strung out on meth. The drunks are not as prevalent as the merely dirty. They seem to mostly converge on the sidewalks surrounding the parks. Sadly, this is the area most visible to passersby. Again, mainstream Portlanders, people who want to join this movement, people who want to bring their children to this possibly-historic event are driving past and heading home.

Aside from politely holding your breath to avoid the emissions from the dirty and the drunk, there are still the deranged to deal with; and holding your breath won’t help. Along with the addicts, it’s most appropriate that the city’s mentally ill have gathered to criticize the relationship between corporations and our government. By redirecting funds to private enterprises, corporations and government representatives have derailed the institutions that served the mentally ill. Now they wander the streets, seeking whatever it is they need, railing at the world or nothing at all. The Occupy Portland movement has given them a home and a captured audience. A tent was set up to serve as a sort of psychiatric triage center offering help for any who suffer from mental illness. None were inside. Yet, plenty were outside the tent, wandering the park, or planted firmly in one place. Lost perhaps. Some were silent. Some were loud. One was terrified, shoeless and obviously sick. This is the smallest of the three groups of usurpers, but they probably require the most immediate attention. They need quality, individual-care from professionals. In most cases they are harmless, but still intimidating. In some cases there is a very real concern for their safety and that of others. If for no other reason, it is good the police have a small but constant presence within the park.

The Dirty, the Drunk and Deranged are all one small piece of the Portland pie. The Occupy Portland movement would be much more effective if a broader representation was present in the park. Of these three groups, the Dirty should take the lead in making this possible. Unlike the mentally ill and the addicts, most of our unwashed brethren have a choice. By shaving (or even trimming), bathing (or even deodorizing) and changing their clothes (or even washing their rags), they will help the cause in myriad ways. Here are three: First, this will help distinguish the truly needy so that they may get the appropriate support they need. Also this will present a more palatable public face to the occupation, which will in turn bring additional support from a broader spectrum of Portland. Lastly, it will disarm critics of the occupation. As it is, it is easy for them to write off this movement as just a bunch of unemployed, lazy reprobates. Having been there, I must assert plainly that this is not true. There are brilliant minds and articulate voices occupying Portland. The sad truth is however that from afar it is hard to discern the brilliant from the demented and the articulate from the raving.

This is a point of perception that may seem frivolous. However if we’ve learned anything about ourselves and our society over the last 3 decades of capitalistic orgyfest, it is that perception is everything. Aside from a hefty bill (and a worrisome itch) at the end of a long bad date, corporations have left us with many life lessons and misguided values. The recently deceased and glorified Steve Jobs, among others, with beautiful gadgets, ingrained in us the notion that it doesn’t really matter what is on the inside that counts. Perception is everything. Build it beautiful and they will come. As sad as this fact is, it is the reality in which we live. The Occupy movement could apply this lesson in honor of the man so many of them seem to worship, even as they ironically excoriate the corporate world he revolutionized. Image is everything (insert Apple logo here). Even better, they should do it because it is good for the movement and for all of Portland’s proud people.