Saturday, July 06, 2002

All of these horrible occurances with the executives and accounting firms at Enron and WorldCom and Xerox, and I forget who else, have been on the news.

Some people say, We need better government protection!

Well, that a good idea to have. But the problem was not that what these folks did was legal. It was clearly illegal. So we already have government protection. There are all kinds of laws on the books about not lying and not stealing.

But it someone decides to lie and steal, they choose to ignore those laws.

I am concerned about the moral fiber of the people in charge of large corporations.

Isn't it funny that we are so concerned with their dishonesty?

I guess it makes sense, because we have moved away from the system of pensions for retirement to a system of personal investments. 401Ks and investment portfolios are supposed to take the burden of responsibility off the companies and put it on the backs of individual workers.

Well, when that happened, there was a a tremendous explosion of money in the stock market. That's what you DO when you invest, right? That's what all the experts tell you to do anyway.

Well, now that a lot of money is in the hands of a lot of people with very little knowledge, it is easy for the execs to fudge the books. Who's gonna know, right? And they are just trying to build up the stock...

I happened to be reading the Communist manifesto today. Just as a refresher, Marx and Engels defined the Bourgeoisie as those who employ the laborers. Sounds like Enron, WorldCom, etc.

So here are some of his earlier statements:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has...left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment'...It has resolved personal worth into exchange value and in indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom--free trade. In one word...it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid laborers.

I just had to look it up...indefeasible means "cannot be undone."

Well, I find this remarkably current. Aren't we all complaining about the way the medical system is becoming more commercialized and less concerned with healing sick people? I remember something that that Chris Rock said:

They ain't never gonna find a cure for AIDS! There's no money in a cure. They'll give you a treatment. That's how drug dealers work, they get you on the come back.


Well, when Enron, WorldCom and ESPECIALLY arthur anderson took a look at their balance sheets and their desires for profit, all the people who were affected by their deceitful schemes were merely numbers on a page. I suspect that the numbers on the page were more real to them than any person.

Nothing left between man and man than cash payment.

Personal worth reduced to exchange value.

I don't know that much about communism. I decided to read the Communist Manifesto, because I realized that the history of the 20th century has been incredibly affected by communism and I am woefully ignorant about it.

It's not very long, and I haven't gotten very far into it. I may have more to say about it later.

But..My initial response to this is that we ought to give more value to non-tangible commodities. "Soft Money" as they sometimes call it.

I had the same problem when I was working in video conferencing. How do you measure the return on investment for quick communication? Everyone looked at how much it cost to upgrade communications equipment, but few people would believe that if you made it easier to talk and have meetings, that the company would be more efficient and more profitable.

It seems simple.

It also seems simple that relationships between people are of value. That honesty and diligence and dedication result in greater profitability seems basic.

I wonder if Arthur Anderson had an algorithm to track the value of the company's honesty assets?

posted by Murphy 7/06/2002

Friday, July 05, 2002

posted by Murphy 7/05/2002

There is even more to this pledge of allegiance thing. I have some special experience with pledging that most Americans do not have.

I have never been to a public school, my first experience with school was in a Baptist Christian School, called Accelerated Christian Education, or ACE. It’s now known as School of Tomorrow.

Anyway, the designer of this curriculum, Dr. Howard, was nothing if not patriotic. His prescription for model ACE schools was uniforms. Of course, his recommendation was red white and blue uniforms. Girl wore skirts and boys wore ties. The ties were a lovely blue background, with a repeating pattern on them.

The emblem of this pattern was extremely symbolic. There was an open Bible, with the American flag and the Christian flag making an X over it. Then, an American Eagle stood above these crossed flags, in the middle.

Being a girl, I did not have to wear this tie.

BUT! Pledging to the American flag was a required part of our daily routine. But in this highly regimented, quasi-militaristic environment, one pledge was not enough.

Did you forget that Christian flag?

There was a pledge to IT, to. Here it is:

I pledge allegiance to the Christian Flag and to the Savior for whose Kingdom it stands. One Savior, crucified, risen, and coming again with life and liberty to all who believe.

Pretty neat, huh? We got to say that one, too.

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL! There was another pledge, to the Bible. Here it is:

I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God's Holy Word, I will make it a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path and will hide its words in my heart that I might not sin against God.

I don’t remember that my school ever said that one. But I was aware of it. The REALLY radical schools would say it. When we went to events that included all the Christian schools in the area, sometimes that pledge would come up. Even at the time, I thought it was silly. Perhaps because the bible is not a flag, and what were they trying to prove, anyway? Who among us DIDN”T think the Bible was important?

Well, the ACE curriculum fell from popular favor. That is, it fell in favor among the small slice of Americans who might have found it favorable. We moved on to other, less rigid curricula. Dr. Howard had to start selling his School of Tomorrow door to door. He translated it badly into Spanish, and sold it to Mexico.

But then, it 1990, the Iron Curtain Fell! Long Live the Christian Flag! The Russian were buying into ACE! He managed to sell his program in Russia.

And then, as a 19-year-old, I was in the outer reaches of nowhere, so nowhere it wasn’t even as accessible as Siberia, teaching the little no-longer-communist children about the pledge of allegiance.

They had a new flag. The old sickle and hammer had been taken down for a more abstract tri-color beastie. In fact, we saw it fly for the first time, the day we entered the capital of the region, Yakutsk: January 1st, 1991.

Well, we were there to instruct this school in the proper implementation of the program. And the first thing they were supposed to do every morning was pledge.

They didn’t have a pledge to the new flag. I think they may have had something similar for the old flag, but these poor people were not really into sloganeering and patriotism. Communism had fallen apart and people were wondering how much longer they would have food.

At the point in time we arrived, all of the government workers (and that was pretty much everybody) had not been paid for 5 months.

People were not feeling patriotic. Perhaps that is why my father insisted on creating a new pledge of allegiance for the new flag. More likely, he was oblivious to their state of mind; we were all extremely disoriented. Remember, which of us in America knew anything about life in Russia? For all we knew, this was just how they did things.

So dad wrote a new pledge of allegiance stealing broadly from the American pledge. Well, that’s what the pledge to the Christian flag and the pledge to the bible did, so he was working in an established literary tradition.

It wasn’t until he gave it to the Russian teacher to be translated that I thought about it. Poor Olga was befuddled by the word “allegiance.” What does it mean?

We all laughed. “The kids in America don’t know what it means either! It’s a standing joke, how kids misunderstand the pledge…I led the pigeons to the flag…Stuff like that.”

Think about that. Is that okay? Kids don't even know what they are saying!

We explained that it meant loyalty, etc. She managed to come up with a decent translation.

So that’s how the little darlings began their days, standing straight, with their right hands pressed to their left breast, reciting to a tri-color poster, which was the best we could do for a flag.

It occurred to me then, that Russians were familiar with these kinds of things. Wouldn’t the Young Pioneers, with their red kerchiefs, have had a whole slew of these kinds of patriotic rituals?

At that point in time, the Young Pioneers had no money to do anything, so kids were roaming the streets, getting drunk and beating each other up. But I didn’t know that until later.

But I thought, Is this the American way that we are supposed to be bringing to the Russians? This rigidity and conformity? Haven’t they had enough of being told what to think and how to act? It made me very uncomfortable.

I joked about finding ties that had the Russian flag on it instead of the American flag, and having the kids wear those. I’m not sure that my family thought it was funny.

Eventually, I had to leave the schools. I just didn’t feel right about teaching that curriculum. I had been there for a year and a half, and my family was staying on. But I could not in good conscience continue to teach rhetoric and rote memorization. I thought America meant something else.

That’s most of my memory-experience I bring to this Pledge of Allegiance issue.

posted by Murphy 7/05/2002

Silly Blogger! I posted this yesterday, but it didn't quite go up. You'll all see it a day late.


It’s American Independence day! Happy Fourth of July!

There is a big conflict going on right now about the pledge of allegiance. I have some thoughts on the matter.

I guess the big controversy in place right now is about the phrase “Under God.” Should thus phrase be included in the pledge of allegiance, which many schools require their students to recite?

This controversy reminds me of the controversy about another little phrase: “and the Son.”

That little phrase was much more important and had much more lasting consequences. It was an addition that some 9th and 10th century christens wanted to add to the Nicene Creed, as part of the definition of the Trinity. It became one of the major causes for the split in the Christian church that resulted in the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Small phrases can have a big impact.

HOWEVER, the phrase “under God” in my opinion does not belong in a required pledge of allegiance. The protection of religious freedom should preserve the rights of school children. They should not be forced into a profession of faith, whether it is their own or not.

This is not the opinion of everyone. Some people feel very strongly that the phrase should be included in the pledge.

I actually have a different opinion altogether than any of the ones I’m hearing on the news.

I think that the ritual of pledging allegiance is ridiculous and unhealthy. The pledge is a recent phenomenon, only being composed in 1892. The way it is treated now, you would think that Washington spoke it ex cathedra while crossing the Delaware. But no. It was written by a Christian socialist for a youth magazine.

It was taken up and pushed in the 20’s by the American Legion.

The entire ritual of saying the pledge seems odd. We have all been raised on it, so maybe it’s hard for some of you to understand what I mean, but think about it.

All these little children assume a military pose and recite in unison a slogan and a promise of loyalty to America.

What purpose does this ritual serve? Is it meant to promote good citizenship and civic-mindedness?

If so, surely there is a better and more effective way to accomplish that goal. I do not believe that encouraging lock-step conformity and equating lemming-like behavior with patriotism for schoolchildren is the best method of teaching civic pride.

Let us instead focus on what true patriotism means. I wonder how many of the people who feel that surge of pride when their right hand is clapped over their heart vote regularly.

posted by Murphy 7/05/2002

Tuesday, July 02, 2002

Today, i was thinking about how much I don't like not having work. This is hardly new. I have a long-standing fear of the bottom dropping out. That I will be completely destitute. It has not happened yet. I've never been truly hungry or homeless. But I have been very close. I used to think of it as a steamroller coming up on to me, threatening to outdistance me and flatten me.

I do not cherish helplessness. I like being able to do for myself. And a steamroller coming up and flattening me would have the effect of NOT allowing me to take care of myself.

I had quite elaborate images in my head about the nature of the steamroller, and exactly how it would come up and come closer. I felt like I had to have a certain distance between me and disaster, a buffer. I knew that if I didn't have a sufficient head start on the flattener that the smallest stumble would mean the end.

I was young and newly married. With the deadly serious naivete of youth, I felt that a single mistake would be the ruin of my entire future. Besides, i had no resources but my own. My family was not in the country. All of my friends had literally and arbitrarily shown me the door. And while I had an overweening sense of the guillotine-like permanence of any error, my husband seemed to think his life was carved every day anew on an etch-a-sketch: "I care not for the morrow!" Nor did he care for ephemeral things such as paychecks and rent.

So the steamroller was ever-present in my mind.

It occurs to me now to wonder why it was a steamroller.

Now, I think of it as a wolf. The wolf nipping at my heels.

This idea became very realized today. I was thinking about that wolf, I was staring him down in my mind. I thought, well, wolf. I don't have a job, and you are waiting with bared fangs for the moment you can overpower me. But I have fangs of my own now.

And it is true. This time, I have weapons to fight back against destitution and abandonment. I have cunning and a quiver full of skills that I did not have when I was 22, and it was a steamroller I was dealing with. A wolf, you can fight and grapple with. A wolf can injure you, but it does not always kill you. A streamroller, however, is a different story.

A steamroller is a broad impersonal sweep. It has nothing to appeal to. It will flatten inevitably, the only question is whether it will flatten ME.

When I was 22, the forces that granted me employment or a working car seemed unfathomable and decidedly impersonal. I knew nothing about what I had to offer the world. Anything granted me was undeserved largess.

But I have since learned (In only 7 years! Imagine how much I will learn in the next seven!) that the worker is worthy of her hire. I discovered the rules of economics, that my labor and my abilities were a tradable commodity.

I had worth!

I really love feeling that in a job. I love knowing that what I do matters, in a very tangible way showing up on my paycheck. This is perhaps another reason why I find unemployment so decidedly uncomfortable--I long for the affirmation of another to prove my value.

But I also have seen the faces of those who assign worth. I know they are cheaters and liars, quite often.

Perhaps that it why I have left the steamroller back in history and think of disaster as a wolf.
posted by Murphy 7/02/2002

Sunday, June 30, 2002

My last year, the last semester of my last year of college, about to graduate, I was struck with a need to know what it was all for. I was studying ENGLISH. Beautiful, meaningful books, collected and dissected for students. And I loved every minute of it, only frustrated with not having enough time to talk more in the classes. These books and scenes and characters walked with me, as real as the students sitting next to me in class. MORE real. I did not know much about what my neighbors were doing, but I knew about Tess and Deerslayer and Song Liling.

Yet. As wonderful as it was to contemplate all of these people, and the people who created these people, I felt as if I were merely amusing myself. What purpose did this exercise serve? What for is this examination of scene and plot and character and inevitability? Yes, I loved it more than a sunny day, but there are many things that people love—it does not follow that you pursue what you love for love’s sake only.

No. There must be a purpose, a product, a reason, a destination. Perhaps, after all those classes, I had missed the point, the most important point, of why I was taking the classes at all.

Naturally, I had to ask. I went to most of my professors, maybe all of my professors, and said, “What is the purpose of studying literature?”

And I found that I had to say it again, differently. I have learned to do this. In Russia, when I was speaking the listeners’ language badly, or speaking my language for a hard-of-understanding listener, I learned to do this. I call it “learning the other person’s vocabulary.”

I thought that my professors had better vocabularies than I did. Perhaps they do, but vocabularies also have the underpinnings of ideas; if the ideas you express in a familiar vocabulary are foreign, even using well-known words won’t help you.

Surprisingly, my idea was foreign. It seemed to verge on blasphemy. Maybe like an upstart Galilean fisherman telling the educated elite than they missed a spot, I pointed at a hole in the fabric of my education.

Why study literature? What product is expected? What end result? What is the point? “Well, if you don’t know, perhaps you should not be studying in this field.”

Oh no…I have heard these kinds of question-parries before. The man I respect least in the world, the pastor of my childhood church, gave me those kinds of replies to hard questions. The ones that say, “By asking the question, you have betrayed yourself as unworthy of the answer.”

I am a question asker. I find no shame in betraying my ignorance. For me, the greatest shame is willfully sustained ignorance, and the best cure for that foul state is a question.

No, I know about the glory of books and words. I know how amazing they are, how they can be. That was not my question, Dr. Squelch.

I was reminded of that conversation, perhaps still stinging from the accusation that I did not really appreciate literature deeply, when I was listening to Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible on tape this weekend.

I had a long road trip to get through, and I love listening to a good story as I drive. This was my chosen tale.

The story pulled me in, with the strangest familial recognition, like meeting a cousin after forever and comparing the eerily identical stories of childhood memories with someone who was basically a stranger. I knew these people; I knew them because I had been them—and in ways that most of the universe never had been. As I was looking at myself by hearing the story of someone else, the process began. The first papery, painless layers of my onion-self peeled off easily, with the revealed experience-truth of the story women. I was there, unarmored, hearing and knowing what the women said. I smiled as I listened, a wry, knowing smile.

But the book did not stop at the shallow layers; it went on. It peeled away more, taking me further into their lives and my own than I had bargained for. In this story that I was now a part of, more and more was stripped away. It was painful, I felt the pulling away of live heart from the center. I was crying out loud long before the end or even the middle.

I was slain; this book made me look at places I didn’t even know were they to look at before. At first, I would have sworn that this book must have been autobiographical, it was that true. But then, I saw that it was fiction, and was truer than any true story. It could be nothing else.

This is what the beauty of literature is about. This kind of self-revelation that can be done by a total stranger. Telling a story in a way that makes so true it changes your life.

posted by Murphy 6/30/2002

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