Gilgamesh, Tablet 5: Decisions, Decisions

October 30, 2014 1 comment

File:Cedrus libani "Cedar of Lebanon" (Pinaceae) (tree).JPG

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Here’s a puzzle for RT: which of the following versions of a stanza from tablet 5 of Gilgamesh is the one he should use? Each was composed using a different metrical scheme. Decisions, decisions…

version 1:

Enkidu recovered his voice, challenged the ghoul:

“How could you dirty his pure and immortal name,

utter such blasphemy, make such a threat?

I owe you nothing! You would have devoured me,

savored my liver and heart, licked my skull.

But Enlil intervened, restrained your greed.”

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version 2:

Enkidu recovered his voice:

“How could you soil his name,” he said,

“show such reckless irreverence?

You would have devoured me,

dined on my liver and heart,

but Enlil muzzled your gaping maw.”

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version 3:

Enkidu recovered his voice, spoke:

“How could you insult such a pure name?

I owe you nothing—nothing! Your cannibal rage

would have torn me limb from limb,

devoured my liver and heart, licked my skull,

but Enlil leashed your appetite.”

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copyright © 2014, The Rag Tree.

PhotoCedrus libani var. libani, Cambridge University Botanic Garden. Author: Magnus Manske. WikiCmns.CC Attribution ShareAlike 3.0.

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John Constable: Landscape and Prophecy

October 28, 2014 2 comments

It could be just a fine landscape painted in the colder months in England, but RT feels there’s something prescient or even prophetic about this untitled painting by John Constable. The loose, impressionistic style anticipates art that would have been considered avant-garde a half-century after the painting’s creation (1811), and the painting’s subject is nothing tangible, but rather the mood it creates in the viewer. We see here a movement away from the heroic and romantic concerns of the 18th and 19th centuries towards a direct encounter with nature and experience, the commonplace that is somehow not commonplace. The beauty of humanity and nature are here in balance, a poise we need to encourage in our century.    RT

Painting: Study for or detail of a larger painting? John Constable, 1811. WikiCmns; Victoria and Albert Museum. Public Domain.

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Issues, Issues: West Virginia, 2014

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment

RT has been canvassing for a local candidate for the West Virginia legislature, Kris Loken, who is running for the WV House of Delegates 62nd district seat. An organized, focused, and determined lady, Ms. Loken served in the U.S. diplomatic corps for 27 years, and has been actively involved in local causes since her arrival in the state some years back. RT thinks she would make a great delegate.

Canvassing has been an eye-opening experience for RT, bringing him as it does into contact with a wide range of people and life stories. In particular, it has made him think carefully about what policies and approaches, other than the rather limited (though important) suggestions on the burner right now, would help WV climb out of the difficult spot it finds itself in.

What ails West Virginia is a syndrome hard to diagnose. Some problems,  nonetheless, are easy to identify:

1) Demand for coal, WV’s leading export, has recently plummeted. In 2013, the value of state coal exports fell 40%, from $7.4 to $4.4 billion. And this in spite of the fact that WV coal contains about 50% more energy than coal from Wyoming, which today is the United State’s leading producer of coal. The problem? WV coal is high in sulfur dioxide and costs more to extract–the easily reachable deposits have all been mined.

2) Wages in West Virginia continue to fall. Historically, the best paying jobs in the state have been in manufacturing, chemicals, and mining. Employment in all these sectors has fallen dramatically for decades, while the number of low paying service sector jobs has increased. Unionization has also declined, and the result of these changes has been a significant drop in worker income.

3) Young workers, educated in West Virginia, continue to leave the state in large numbers. With college tuition, as throughout the country, increasing dramatically in West Virginia, young workers often leave the state looking for better-paying jobs, if for no other reason than to pay off their student loans.

The debate continues over what to do about these changes, but seems, in RT’s opinion, to be bogged down in details, which, while important, do not give us overall goals for West Virginia. What is lacking is a sense of direction or momentum. No big picture solutions are being offered. RT offers a few suggestions:

1) Take advantage of the resources already available in the state. Leaders will often talk of the West Virginia’s coal and natural gas resources, but no so often of its human resources. If, as seems apparent to RT, workers in the state tend to show mechanical genius, a trait possibly left over from the glory days of manufacturing and railroads, then why not encourage the use of these skills? Why have glass manufacturing and pottery production, once big employers, been allowed to languish?

2) Encourage small businesses in West Virginia. Small businesses generate jobs, and their expenditures and profits remain within the state.

But starting a small business is no small feat: these days, a prospective small business owner must have excellent credit to obtain a start-up loan, and the extra hours and devotion to producing a high-quality service can easily exhaust the owners; finally, there are the paperwork requirements and local taxes.

The solution, as far as RT can see, is the creation of small business zones, areas that remove some of these barriers to economic development. These zones would offer not just tax breaks for businesses less than three years old, but also reduce monthly state, county, and municipal paperwork to a single document no longer than four pages and provide customized help from the state employment agency in finding appropriate staff.

RT recommends implementing this program in the Charleston, Huntington, Wheeling, Beckley, and Martinsburg areas.

3) Legalize recreational marijuana. In 2011, PBS ranked West Virginia as one of the biggest marijuana producing states in the country. Legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana in West Virginia–or at least legalize its medical use. And while we’re at it, let’s legalize hemp and its many uses.

hmmm…RT can see that while this post looks at some important issues, it doesn’t really offer a glimpse of what the overall direction West Virginia should be going in…a big topic for his next post.

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Want to help West Virginia Democrats? Here are a couple of links:

West Virginia Democratic Party

Berkeley County Democratic Party

Photo: Saturday Afternoon Street Scene, Welch, McDowell County, WV, 1946. Russell Lee. WikiCmns. NARA – 541004. Public Domain.

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Midterm 2014 and the Long Struggle for Justice

October 24, 2014 Leave a comment

RT has been struggling for a couple of weeks to write a post on the upcoming midterm elections. The problem has been finding some basis for optimism in the generally anti-President Obama atmosphere and its attendant prediction that Republicans will take control of the Senate in November.

That the country is in rapid transition seems to RT beyond doubt. He offers three statistics in support:

1) Twenty-six states have expanded Medicaid to offer people living below the poverty line Medicaid coverage (and RT is proud to say that West Virginia is one of them). On the other hand, 24 states have refused so far to take advantage of the federal program.

2) Thirty-two states have legalized gay marriage, including Utah, where a federal judge late last year struck down the state ban on gay marriages, starting the judicial revolt that has led to the current happy state of affairs. And it seems likely that several other states will follow suit.

3) Two states (Colorado and Oregon) have legalized recreational marijuana, and one more (Washington) is scheduled to do so soon. It seems likely that four or five more will vote to legalize marijuana in November, California among them.

The legalization of gay marriage in the United States amounts, in RT’s opinion, to a social revolution. That the collapse of legal opposition to gay marriage happened so swiftly has left him gaping. As with other social revolutions, this one will likely take decades to play itself out, and surely the American right wing will draw energy from the general confusion as people adjust to the new social reality. What, for instance, will gay spouses be called–husband and husband, wife and wife? It will take a generation for the language to migrate, taking our conversation and perspective along with it. But the central point seems settled: people have a right to marry the person they love.

The users of marijuana have experienced a journey towards legalization easily as arduous as gay couples. Pot, that darling of the 1960s culture wars, was so demonized that long after hippies were accepted as one of America’s tribes, smoking the substance was still considered a seditious act. But common sense seems to be carrying the day, finally: marijuana is no more harmful than alcohol and tobacco and the grossly disproportionate sentences handed down to keep its use “under control” have ruined lives and cost the country untold fortunes in incarceration costs and lost human potential. In fact, this particular “lifestyle” reform is one of the few political issues that seems to enjoy support across the spectrum. Implementation at the state level will have to be monitored to ensure that the medical fallout from smoking is minimized and that teenagers and young adults are discouraged from developing a habit. But in general, Requiescat in pace.

Elsewhere in this blog, RT has proposed the following amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “The right to eat nutritious food, to be adequately clothed and sheltered, and to receive necessary medical attention from a physician shall not be denied.” That the Affordable Healthcare Act has substantially increased the rolls of the medically insured (to the tune of 8+ million people) is perhaps the most important humanitarian achievement in the United States since the enacting of LBJ’s Great Society legislation in the 1960s. Not that anything worth doing is easy, but RT has a suspicion that the momentum here is also towards nationwide acceptance.

Was it Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “The arc is long, but tends towards justice”? Words worth considering, now that the midterm elections are almost upon us.

Photo: MLK Jr. at 1963 March on Washington. USIA (NARA). Public Domain.

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Scotland: Yes, No, and the House of Lords

September 18, 2014 2 comments

 

In addition to some Irish and German background, RT has a fair amount of Scottish blood in him, as witness his middle name, Chisholm. Such genealogical connections constitute the basis for his offering an opinion on Thursday’s looming vote concerning Scottish independence. He will admit upfront that he thinks that Scotland should remain a part of the United Kingdom, but a UK that is somewhat differently governed than at present.

RT will start by suggesting that the main source of political tension between the UK’s constituent counties is the preponderance of English population and resources. This is reflected in the House of Commons, where proportional representation results in 502 English members, 30 Welsh members, 52 Scottish members, and 17 members from Northern Ireland. For the record, here is the population differential behind Thursday’s vote: England has 53 million residents, Scotland, 5.3 million. Such disproportion might worry the most ardent of No voters.

The United States has famously dealt with this problem via its Senate, to which every state in our union elects two members. So what if Wyoming (pop. 580,000) has more cattle than people? This least populous state gets the same number of votes in the Senate that California, the most populous state in the country (at about 38 million residents), gets.

Which brings us to the United Kingdom’s House of Lords. As RT understands it, the House of Lords is a legislative body quite different from the U.S. Senate, though the Lords has been undergoing rapid change recently in its structure, functioning, and numbers. A quick check at Wikipedia reveals the following facts about the HoL: size–774 members; selection of members: members are peers, who have usually been selected for elevation by the Prime Minister (92 are hereditary peers); function: to debate and pass legislation, but with the proviso that any bill passed by the House of Commons can only be delayed from being presented for the Royal Assent for one calendar year, and if the bill concerns taxation or public funds, the Lords may only delay it for a month. The HoL also spends considerable time scrutinizing the government’s activities and expenses.

And for those, who like RT before this post, did not know what a peer might be, Wikipedia informs us that a peer is a member of the peerage, or British nobility.

Here is RT’s rough-and-ready proposal for reforming the British House of Lords. First of all, the
HoL will continue to embrace meritocracy, honoring and empowering those individuals and groups who have done much to serve society.

1) The HoL will comprise 480 members.

2) It will be divided into four quadrants, one for each constituent nation of the UK, giving us English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish quadrants. Each quadrant will consist of 120 members, all of them from the associated constituent nation.

3) Each quadrant will be divided into four segments, each segment consisting of 30 members and representing a particular area of human endeavor, namely a) government, business, and community activism; b) art, whether the fine arts or crafts; c) science and independent scholarship, and d) spiritual life and academia. Each member’s principal achievements must have taken place in their segment’s specialty.

4) The Prime Minister, in consultation with the monarch, will appoint HoL members for a term of 15 years. No member may be reappointed.

5) The HoL will continue its present duties, except for the following. Each quadrant may caucus separately when considering a bill. If at least 72 members of the quadrant (three-fifths) vote to reject the bill, then it will be returned to its originating house for reconsideration. If the bill is brought before the HoL again, and the quadrant once more rejects it, but the bill is passed by the house as a whole, then the bill’s previsions will not apply to the quadrant’s country.

6) An institution as steeped in history and tradition as the House of Lords is cannot be dismantled overnight without sending a shock-wave through society and sacrificing the (considerable) experience and wisdom of its current members. If the Scottish independence vote returns a “no,” however, it might be best to expedite at least the quadrant provisions. The three “junior” constituent countries need a more effective voice in the UK’s parliament.

Images: Upper: The Main Chamber of the Scottish Parliament; author, Martyn Gorman, geograph.org.uk. WikiCmns; CC BY-SA 2.0. Lower: Queen Victoria Seated on the Throne of the House of Lords, 1838. Author: George Hayter. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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Bye, Bye, Gerrymander: Some Suggestions

September 10, 2014 Leave a comment

1242px-113th_US_Congress_House_districts_color--WikiCC3.0

Mid-term elections are drawing near, and RT feels the need to talk about some of the election issues that are really important to the well-being of the United States and its election processes. Chief among these issues must be the redistricting process by which states draw congressional district boundaries. And actually, RT has some good news to report about this.

It turns out that a number of U.S. states (seven, to be precise) do not leave redistricting to their legislatures, but have turned them over to independent or bipartisan commissions. Who are these few and brave? Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and Washington.  Three states, Florida, Iowa and Maine, give independent bodies authority to propose redistricting plans, but preserve the role of legislatures to approve them. Seven states, finally, have only a single representative for the entire state because of their low populations, and therefore do not need to redistrict; these are Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.

Here’s the bad news: 34 U.S. states let their legislatures redraw the district maps that in no small part will determine who gets re-elected. Here are some of the results: in 2012, Democratic Party candidates received 1.2 million more votes than Republicans did in the federal election, but the Republicans won a 234 to 201 majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Here’s another example of the effect of unfair redistricting. In California, a state which Democrats have long controlled, the redistricting system was so biased in favor of incumbents that out of 765 elections held in the state between 2001 and 2011, only 5 seats changed hands. (And please note, this appalling statistic helped inspire a reform of California’s redistricting process in 2008.)

Yes, the gerrymander is alive and well and living in the United States.

To be fair to redistricting commissions (and state legislatures trying to eliminate gerrymandering), it’s impossible to devise a system that will leave everyone feeling adequately represented. On the other hand, here are a few common-sense criteria that are often suggested for redistricting. Districts should:

1) contain approximately equal populations;

2) be contiguous and compact;

3) contain approximately equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans;

4) contain both urban and rural neighborhoods; and

5) ensure that the major cultural and racial communities in a district are equitably represented in municipal, state, and federal legislatures.

States should:

1) hand over responsibility for redistricting to an *independent* (i.e., no members from the state legislature) commission. In this regard, Iowa provides an excellent model of the process that should be adopted; and

2) monitor for and adjust the redistricting process in response to poor turnover rates between parties in electoral districts.

The goal here is to ensure elections that offer voters a real choice; this in turn should lead to competition of ideas, the equitable distribution of power, and the forging of compromises that resolve difficult disagreements.

Map: 113th U.S. House of Representatives Districts. WikiCmns; author: Mr. Matté; uploaded by Magog the Ogre. CC 3.0.

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Discoveries

September 6, 2014 Leave a comment

640px-Dust_bowl,_Texas_Panhandle,_TX_fsa.8b27276_edit--WikiPD-2

In his research for his mother’s memoirs and family history in general, RT has run across many amazing images. He offers one such discovery here, Dust Clouds and Car, by American photo-journalist Arthur Rothstein. It’s worth noting that RT’s mom was driven by her adoptive mother three times cross country from New York City to Lake Tahoe, starting in 1937. RT has yet to find an image that captures the dangers and mystery of the 1930s as effectively as this one does.

RT has also managed to watch Grand Hotel, a classic early Hollywood talkie. Another trick-up-his-sleeve: he has run across Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, one of the great surviving silent movies, and will be watching it in the next few days. Expect reviews of both films in these pages in the next week or so.

The 1930s and 40s are widely understood as an epochal period, and we’re very lucky to be able to experience these years through the best artistic efforts of the time.

Photo: Dust Clouds and Car, Texas Panhandle (1936). Arthur Rothstein, LOC. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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