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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Mikhail Bulgakov's, "The White Guard".

Skoropadsky - before 1917.jpg
The Hetman of Ukraine
Having read Mikhail Bulgakov's, "The Master and Margarita" several times, and always finishing it with a hunger for more, when I saw "The White Guard" on the library's shelf, I grabbed it. But since I'd been hoping for another riotous romp, despite the back-cover blurbs, I was at first disappointed at the historical fiction it turned out to be. But not for long. Not with what's happening in Ukraine now. Because, although the events described in the novel occurred almost exactly a century ago, and were a result of the first War to end All War (hahahahaha!), which has its own modern parallel in the US fiction of Waging eternal War to keep the therefore non-existent peace, they have strong parallels to the chaos of the present-day Ukraine, and indeed, suggest many of the roots of that conflict and the unlikelihood that those will be resolved any time soon.

It is Kiev in 1918, as evidenced by its location along the Dnieper, but referred to in the novel only as 'The City', where the Socialists - considered by the Turbins, the family at the heart of the novel, in the same way as tea party Republicans consider any idea of socialism today - are encamped outside the city with their hated leader Petlyura preparing to besiege the Capital. The Turbins and their allies are what the title refers to, The White Guard, strongholds of support for a return to Tsarist Russia, who still can't bring themselves to believe that the Tsar, and therefore their privileged position (deserved, of Course) at the top of the heap, is dead.

Bulgakov refers to it as "The Ukraine", a nomenclature current-day Ukrainians object to, and one can understand why, when you read of their separate identity from the Russians who soon enough appear in turn outside the city's gates to roust the Socialists as The Reds from Russia encircle the city and prepare to take it over. So you can see just from this the close parallels to the situation today that there isn't just pro and con, you're either with us or against us, dynamic, but a political stance is possible that can be in complete opposition to the Nationalistic one, yet could be pro-communist,  so that when you hear the press refer to the right-wing present day Ukrainian as 'Nazi', you wonder if their conflating National Socialism with Nazism, or if in fact their is an anti-Semitic element to it.

On that last point, there is a scene toward the end of the novel when Petlyura's Socialists are about to be driven from the City by The Reds, when Bulgakov describes one of the cruelest events in the book as an armed and angry 'Socialist', a cossack sergeant on horseback, exhibits distinctly antisocial and in fact, barbarous, behavior as he rides on his horse hitting a man over the head with a ramrod as the man's head jerks with each blow:

"The ramrod cut hard and viciously into the tattered coat and each time the man responded with a hoarse cry. 
'Ah, you dirty Yid!', the sergeant roared in fury. 'We're going to see you shot! I'll teach you to skulk in the dark corners. I'll show you! Spy!...'
But the bloodstained man did not reply to the cossack sergeant who then ran ahead flailing the heavy rod with its heavy, glittering brass tip. Without calculating the force of the blow the sergeant brought down the ramrod like a thunderbolt on to the man's head. Something cracked inside it and the man in black did not even groan. Thrusting up his arm, head lolling, he slumped from his knees to one side and with a wide sweep of his other arm he flung it out as though he wanted to scoop up more of the trampled and dung-stained snow. His fingers curled hook-wise and clawed at the dirty snow. Then the figure lying in the dark puddle twitched convulsively a few times and lay still."

In this act of violence and brutal revenge against anyone helpless enough to cross his path, it's easy for us to condemn and forget that, besides the Russians and the Reds and the Socialists, the Ukranians also had the Hetman to contend with, and his betrayal, as, in the middle of the night, he slithered out of town leaving the White Guard alone, still thinking, however, that they had the backing of the legitimate government of the Post-War period on their side. But the anti-Semitic undertone in this act of heartless brutality has echoes in the current-day nature of the Nationalistic movement today. The only people "strong enough to oust the Hetman  and the Germans were the Bolsheviks, but the Bolsheivks themselves were not much better: nothing but a bunch of Yids and commissars. The wretched Ukrainian peasants were in despair; there was no salvation from any quarter."

Then as now, 

"There were tens of thousands of men who had come back from the war, (this time in Afghanistan?) having been taught how to shoot by those same Russian officers they loathed so much. In little towns there were countless teachers, medical orderlies, smallholders, Ukrainian seminarists, whom fate had commissioned as ensigns in the Russian army, healthy sons of the soil with Ukrainian surnames who had become staff-captains - all of them talking Ukrainian, all longing for the Ukraine of their dreams free of Russian landlords and free of Muscovite officers; and thousands of Ukrainian POW's returned from Austrian Galicia."

And who/what was this Hetman, that, to western ears, sounds so much like 'hitman'? The position and title comes from the 17'th century, but after WW1 was reestablished in 1918 by the Ukrainian General Pavlo Skoropadsky, a descendant of the former Hetman of Ukraine Ivan Skoropadsky. The Law announced at the session of the Central Council of Ukraine on April 29, 1918 laid a legal groundwork for the new position. Pavlo Skoropadsky transformed Ukraine into the autocratic Ukrainian State under the protectorate of the Central powers, while expelling the Bolshevik forces of the Russian SFSR. During his term the Communist Party was prohibited on the territory of Ukraine for the first time. After the uprising led by the Directorate of Ukraine, Pavlo Skoropadsky surrendered the title, transferring the state power to the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine and fleeing into Germany, disguised, as per Bulgakov, as a bandaged-up patient, like a tale from Agatha Christie. 

Meanwhile, the landlord downstairs form the Turbins, our White Guard stalwarts, is, having been robbed by brigands, declaring that what they need is autocratic rule. A not-uncommon desire of all nations that are peopled by a single ethnic constituency. For all of the USA's failings, and any reader of my posts knows I find many, that is one saving grace of its immigrant-based population, it is hard to do ethnic cleansing when no one knows what ethnicity to 'cleanse'. But it also means we have no understanding for, respect of, nor experience with, the fervent desire to just get rid of all these 'ferrin' elements, nor the underlying belief that that'll make everything 'normal' somehow, but other, perhaps, especially in troubled Eastern Europe, countries have no such qualms about living only with their own kind, the ultimate expression, as I noted when Reagan first started using the term, of Family Values, with its idealization of the Nuclear family, but its ugly side of intolerance and bigotry reinforced by a paternalistic authoritarian, Christianity.

So here they sit, the struggling Ukrainians, Russia on one side, Germany, now buttressed by a NATO, that has no more regard for international Law than the Russians they condemn, on the other, and an internal drive for Autarky battling with a desire for Democracy, and an economy that's run by a bullying, bandito-minded oligarchic elite, the inevitable result of the Milton Freidmanization of the economy, while the West wonders how this could ave happened. A good reading of Bulgakov's "The White Guard" might shed a little light on that, but,  unfortunately, won't help a whit in solving that suffering country's ongoing, but now, all-but-ignored, dilemma.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

"Pride" and Prejudice:The Fairy Tale Version of The Coalminers' Dodder.

                                                           The Coalminers Dodder no more.

When I agreed to go to the movies to see "Pride", I thought it'd be another PBS-style rendition of gays being liberated to celebrate their adulation of Judy Garland in public or praise for their stalwart stand against Dianne Feinstein's 'Fascist' attempt to shut down the Gay bathhouses in the eighties just because they were the venue for spreading the AIDS epidemic that was killing the very people protesting against the one step being taken to help halt it. So man, was I surprised to see an exceptionally well-made film that really touched me and made me feel, dare I say it?, Hope.

We went to the San Francisco Embarcadero's newly refurbished cinema, where the seats were sumptuously-appointed, barcalounger-like chairs that had electrically powered controls. We felt like  the Airline stewardess was going to appear at any moment carrying a tray full of glasses of champagne. The only downside was the sound system. Like all modern-accoutered cineplexes, they feel that they have a new sound system, and by god, your going to HEAR it, even if the volume needed to get your attention is reminiscent of the ads for DIE-Hard II, and "Will blow you through the back wall of the Theatre!". Yes, that was an enticement. Somehow the prospect of being physically assaulted is now a reason for not missing an upcoming event, and that's what the decibel level of the speakers was like: an assault. I could plug both my ears and still hear every word shouted at me with perfect, and now comfortable, clarity. Have cell phones made everybody deaf?

But that's true in every theatre now, so  it's just an aside, that I felt the need to vent, because, the movie was so captivating that I soon enough got over the aptly named deafening volume, as it really does deafen you after awhile, and had become reconciled to my aural discomfiture.

Which was good, and oh so worth it. The film is about how a group of Gay men in London were organised into a kind of splinter group who, for some ungodly reason, thought it would be a good idea to raise cash to help the Miner's strike going on in Wales that was starving the miners back into the pits. "Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners". Now, what's really strange, for me personally, is that in my jacket pocket at the time was a copy of Upton Sinclair's "King Coal" in which are depicted many of the abuses that the mine owners subjected the turn-of-the-century (not this one, the last one) coal miners to in Colorado and the resultant attempt to get the workers organised into a union. I had no idea "Pride" had anything to do with coal mining, so I was all, "Whoa!".

So, in a way that was so natural, weaving the gay aspect into the story not as though it's a 'lifestyle' choice, or had problems that couldn't be grasped by straights, it manages to make a tapestry of problems of the protagonists, from coming out, to dealing with AIDS (it took place in the 1984/5 time frame), to Lesbian invisibility in the gay movement, and brought it face-to-face with the adversities of being in a small coal mining town and working in the pits (although the nitty-gritty job of actually going down into the pits and coming back everyday, and what all that entailed was sorely lacking). This was not a Zola's "Germinal" by any stretch, or even "King Coal" in that respect, but despite that what it did do was brought to the forefront something the "Occupy" movement was not quite able to do: namely the importance of Solidarity. The wrenching realization that those people you feel a deep animosity toward are far more like you and face many of the exact same travails, only in a somewhat different guise, is unsentimentally, protrayed. (well, okay, maybe a little sentimentally, I did, after all, find myself with tears rolling down my face for a good deal of the movie, although I hardly knew why, it was as though I'd been turned into an empath when the film started).

Instead of telling more of the plot, I'd like to say instead that, what it did for me was what, to a lesser extent, the drag movie, "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar", tries to hap-hazardly, pull off, as it has an, albeit flamboyantly, similar confrontation, but is mostly just silly fun, and quite eye-opening, as Wesley Snipes (whodda-thunk?) was just brilliant, and such a sweet insightful man, as a drag queen. Or, more similarly, the British movie, "Kinky Boots", because, for all their glad-handing and feel-good chutzpah, the man-girls were still outsiders and well, on some level, freaks, but we, and the towns, love them, not just anyway, but, as it turns out, because of that.

But "Pride" takes Kinky a step further and, first, by including not just one drag-queen, but a whole panoply of gay people just trying to be: not to be gay, they don't have to try to be that, but just to Be, and then by showing their dedication and growth as people. Growth attained from trying to help someone other than themselves who is hurting as much as themselves and is being abused just as much as themselves, makes it, I think, the first film I've seen that convincingly showed what the results can be. Because, near the end, when the big rigs carrying the miners to the Gay Freedom day parade unexpectedly rolled up, what was so moving about it was that you knew that a lot of those miners weren't convinced that gay rights was something they really agreed with or that they agreed with many of the ideas of its proponents, but what they did know was that when no one else was there for them this group of intrepid people faced down the bigotry and the animosity coming from their own fellow-travelers, and stood together with the miners and fought for their cause. To step up for them in turn and walk in solidarity with them was now a matter of Honor for the miners. You don't take from somebody and then turn just your back on them: you stand together with them as One.

That's a powerful message to me, and its emotional effect reverberated in me the echo of  Frodo's friend Sam in Tolkien's, "The Two Towers" when, after his moving speech, Frodo asks him, "And what are we holding onto, Sam?",   "That there's some good in this world", he tells him, ... "and it's worth fighting for."

Of course, which doesn't detract from the movie nor the story it told, the fact that it was about coal, while the world continues its death march by feverishly digging up every last remnant of sequestered carbon and releasing it into the atmosphere via combustion, caused a sort of cognitive dissonance for me, because no such Solidarity is possible, nor ever will be, on that issue. There will only be continued strife, and further dissolution into squabbling factions, because, as John Horne Burnes describes in "The Gallery", a depiction of life in war-torn Naples toward the end of WW2, in one of the portraits of which it's comprised, entitled "Giulia":

"Misery doesn't necessarily make strange bedfellows - or any bedfellows at all. Privation and suffering doesn't unite people so much as they divide them. Each family went into a sniping war against all others. Everyone in Naples agreed only that the Allies were worse liars than the Fascists. Everyone was divided from everyone else. Whereas the Neapolitans had known a dreary camaraderie when they all faced the war together in the bomb shelters, they now became one another's enemies, since each must go out and forage for food. Since they'd all kept alive during the German occupation and the bombings, they looked back on those days as a rather gay paradise compared to their existence now. They hadn't minded so much living from day to day. But now it was a minute to minute struggle, in which any problem five minutes hence seemed a lifetime removed. They hadn't been liberated from anything at all, the war was just now beginning for them."

Some would say such privation won't necessarily follow a diminution in the burning of fossil fuels, but the longer we put off addressing the problem, which more and more looks like that's to be yet another decade from now, the more likelihood it will, because the more we mortgage everything to its continued "energy is free and easy" paradigm of waste, and the "to hell with everyone else", "there's no such thing as society", individualism, the less there will be left to cannibalize a different future from.

What "Pride" did was bring me up, however momentarily, out of the deep sense of loneliness believing the above engenders, because, although at the end of it all the miners lose their strike, it's somehow by then no longer the point. They had forged something that was presented as more uplifting to their spirits than a wage increase, they found Hope; they'd discovered humanity and support in a place where they had thought only perversity and decadence lived. When their morale was sagging and their resolve weakening, they had discovered a deep reservoir of Pride.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Pollyanna Krugmaniac: Flaccid Science's Take on Hard Science.

Pumpkinhead: The strident voice of a Neoliberal.

That Pumpkinhead of Economic writers, Paul Beady-eyed Krugman, the scold of Neoliberalism, is pedaling another fantasy-fueled chimera, this time economic growth without ecological pain, running a fossil-fuel-based economy on solar-power, paying down an enormous multi-trillion-dollar mushrooming national debt of $17 trillion, one that he has advocated in the same pages of the NYT to exponentially increase, sucking in more of the wealth of the rest of the world's economies, whose leaders would buy up that debt, (American oligarchs already being so stuffed with it they can't force down any more), easily and simply, all while we stop burning fossil fuel and abandon all those nasty coal/natgas power plants, even though, (I guess they didn't consult Pollyanna first), they are now building new ones in GERMANY, the world leader of wind-power and solar-generated electricity and alternative power. They need coal-fired plants to replace the nuclear ones they shut down after the calamity of Fukushima (but Pollyanna probably has a way to INSIST that that's been good for growth, and if you disagree, well, that's because you don't understand what's meant by economic growth).

The Neoliberal scold starts by berating anybody so foolish as to think that there's a link between economic growth and ever-rising emissions of greenhouse gases, they are simply basking in what he ridiculously calls “climate despair”, a nonsensical term, the user of which insists that it's everyone else who, as he so often states from his increasingly pedantic rostrum, is "getting it wrong". Even as he uses the other absurd term of the avatars of economic-growth-without-emissions-growth, "renewable energy", as though it magically comes out of a magician's hat.

Energy is generated in all biological and economic processes, in order to do work, and thereby generates waste heat, but then more must be generated for the next task its user needs it for. It is never, in any of all the methods used to generate it anywhere in the known universe, "renewable". It is transformed and dissipated; if you need more, you must create more, you can never simply "renew" it as though it's a book from the library. But of course, that's science, something Pollyanna never has to really trouble himself with; he is, after all just an economist, and as a group they feel no more need to justify their statements than the pundits on Fox News.

But he indulges in even more Krugmania:

"On one side, there has been dramatic progress in renewable energy technology, with the costs of solar power, in particular, plunging, down by half just since 2010. Renewables have their limitations — basically, the sun doesn't always shine, and the wind doesn't always blow — but if you think that an economy getting a lot of its power from wind farms and solar panels is a hippie fantasy, you’re the one out of touch with reality."

I know I shouldn't start at the end, but I mean who the hell thinks that "an economy getting a lot of its power from wind farms and solar panels is a hippie fantasy"? Much of Europe, and especially the powerhouse economy of Europe, Germany again, has been doing exactly that for this entire century, even as the emissions from the global economy have accelerated, despite the fact that they have had in place carbon trading during that whole time. When does he think he's writing this, in 1990? As for the "dramatic progress in renewable energy technology, with the costs of solar power, in particular, plunging, down by half just since 2010", with the price of oil plunging the exact same amount, by half, that will put that theory to the test, plus, every time a solar panel gets built, it uses fossil fuels to mine its ingredients, build it, transport it, install it, and to back it up when the sun isn't shining. And of course there's that thing with science getting in the way again: if the percentage growth in overall energy utilization exceeds the growth of energy generated via wind/solar installations, with no diminution, but in fact increases in energy consumed, (which it has done, even in the sluggish growth in the period of which he speaks), then CO2 production and venting into the atmosphere continues to INcrease, not decrease. During the period when the price was dropping, the CO2 generation continued to grow by 3% per annum, such that now the amount in the atmosphere exceeds 400 ppm.

Pollyanna then states, "So saving the planet would be cheap and maybe even come free." So the Krugmaniac thinks this is about "saving the planet"? I really do find it harder and harder to distinguish him from that other idiot economist gracing the pages of the NYT, Ben Stein. The planet, you poor deluded fool, is in no danger from the acts of the marauding primate known as man. It is all other lifeforms, and the stability of the conditions under which they live in order to be able to mutate and therefore continue their existence, that is in peril. The Planet Earth has been here, unless you also believe like the right-wingers you line up with on this, as on so many other issues, that it is a mere 6,000 years old, is 4.5 billion years old, and has survived a literally earth-shattering cataclysmic collision with a comet that was so violent it shore off a chunk of it that we can now look at in the dead of night as it reflects our star's light onto our planet's surface: the Moon. Earth is in no danger from Climate Change. In fact, as I look out into the universe, it has lately occurred to me that, far from being the only "intelligent" life in the universe, it could well be that we are simply all that's left of intelligent life. Its own destruction is baked in, as it makes a Faustian bargain with Nature, because Reason brings with it Hubris. We could well be the last surviving remnants of a once-far-flung lifeforce. And although that's a bit fantastical, it's no more so than the drivel being spouted here by the self-important Pollyanna Krugman.

And as for the assertion that it will, "maybe even come free"? Well, as an aside, remember the triple A's of evaluating someone's position: Anytime you hear Anyone, suggesting that Anything can be had for "Free", as a citizen of the finance-industry-as-fraud-machine known as the USA, you should know better, on the strength of that alone, than to listen to anything further coming out of their mouths.

Next the flaccid scientist takes on hard scientists by stating:

"And you sometimes see hard scientists making arguments along the same lines, largely (I think) because they don’t understand what economic growth means. They think of it as a crude, physical thing, a matter simply of producing more stuff, and don’t take into account the many choices — about what to consume, about which technologies to use — that go into producing a dollar’s worth of G.D.P."

Pollyanna always gets a little har-umphy when it comes to people who practice real science, who have to back up what they say with real world, not Pollyanna, data. Men who can't just spout something because they think it should be that way, but have to present hard data verifiable by other scientists in their fields. Otherwise, he wouldn't be needing to make such ludicrous statements as "they don’t understand what economic growth means". This is something only a person with an inferiority complex would sputter. These are the very scientists who've come up with the models that've tracked the changes in the climate that predicted many of the phenomena that we're seeing already happen on our planet. So with this statement he disparages the very people without whom there would BE no solar panels nor windfarms nor access to all those fossil fuels, for that matter, by suggesting that they can't understand something as intellectually flaccid as the concept of economic growth, which , apparently, since he uses the outmoded measure of GDP, instead of the now generally accepted metric of GNP, he apparently doesn't understand himself. Can any of the economic forecasts that any economist has made over the last two decades (Two years? Two months?) be used to predict how the world's economies will look by 2015? No. Because, even economists don't understand, and therefore can't agree on, what's meant by economic growth.

The Krugmaniac made comments of the same snarky nature about William Greider's book " One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism", all of them wrong, but failure to test theory against reality is the hallmark of academic economists, the only profession that makes psychology look like hard science.

Planes don't fly on solar or wind power, nor do the billion cars currently on the road worldwide, the replacement of which alone would burden the atmosphere with many more gigatons of CO2 (1.2 million tons of CO2 is generated to produce every million tons of aluminum ... whether the cars they are in the process of manufacturing are ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) machines or electric, but that's just one of those inconvenient truths); furthermore large industrial users don't buy into cap and trade:

Guy Bjerke, with the Western States Petroleum Association, said refinery managers are willing to look for ways to cut emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. But they balk at the idea of an emissions cap for each facility if it restricts operations. Setting that kind of cap would undercut the operating permits that the district has already given Bay Area refineries.

In the global economy, the way it is currently structured, those 'operating permits' Guy refers to have an equivalent instrument: derivatives. For every power plant coming on line right now, in far greater quantities than solar  panels or wind-farms, in terms of their electrical production, there are loans and other financial paper generated, all of which is then securitized, and swapped, and leveraged, and used to generate more debt, that bakes in the CO2 production into the cake for the entire next generation, and that amount is accelerating despite all the solar panels and wind-farms being put in simultaneously. Should these plants be taken out of operation earlier than their calculated lifespan, that represents losses: Real Losses that are taken out of any Growth that they may have contributed to the GDP, as well as their growth-enhancing energy-generating capacity.

"We’re not opposed to emission reductions,” said Bjerke, the trade association’s Bay Area manager. “What we’re opposed to is anything that undercuts the operational flexibility of the refineries and impairs the permits these facilities already hold.”  That "operational flexibility" he refers to means the profits he expects to reap, and those profits, if carbon trading is made part of the picture, will be reduced, and therefore, so will growth.

So it isn't the real scientists, but the Pollyanna Krugmaniac that doesn't understand how growth works. To whit, this bit of flimflam from the Krugmaniac after the economy went over a fiscal cliff in 2008: "Our capacity hasn't been diminished".  And yet here we are, six years later still diminished by our incapacity to end the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, diminished by the millions and millions unable to pay their mortgages, diminished by even more millions and millions without jobs, millions dropped from the workforce, millions on welfare, food-stamps, involuntarily working only part-time jobs, living out of their cars, diminished by the millions of seniors with reduced or no income because of ZIRP, diminished from the crash in output and inability to grow our economy without using Enron-style Fed monetary legerdemain, diminished by our inability to issue new debt unless that same Fed buys it up after the Treasury sells it to Goldman Sachs so that they can get their cut before turning around and pawning it off on the Fed, a risk-free transaction they charge a risk-premium for, or is that what you mean by "economic growth", Mr. Krugman? The funneling of the bulk of the output of an entire "Free" people into the hands of an oligarchic elite? Then you're right Pollyanna, I don't understand economic growth. Because your idea of economic growth, despite all your tsk-tsk'ing, looks more like economic doldrums, or as your buddy Larry Summers would call it, stagflation, to those of us not cushioned from its lack with a position in Academania (sic). But as long as you can maintain your bully pulpit position at the NYT, you don't really care about any of that, do you? You only care about licking the shoes of your masters in order to retain your sinecure as Mr. Supercilious Krugman.