Welcome to this blog which is dedicated to providing a forum for a civil discourse on a variety of issues to try and make our society a truly better place for all. While the views expressed are strictly my personal opinions, please feel free to join in on these conversations accepting the premises that every attempt will be made to ensure that nothing but the truth be spoken and the truth be heard.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Back to the Future - Way Back!

One of the few advantages of becoming a senior citizen in the State of Arkansas, and perhaps other states as well, is that achieving that status allows one to take classes free of charge at any one of several state universities. The beauty of that privilege is that one can take classes in any discipline just for the pure pleasure of learning. Additionally, there is the option to audit classes and be free from taking tests, writing research papers and making oral reports. In my case I chose to audit classes in the Art History tract, as I had become interested in art several years ago but knew nothing about what I was looking at when visiting galleries and museums. Having completed both Art History Survey I and II, my enlightenment continued this past semester in Greek Art & Myth.

As is the case in all levels of education, the teacher is key, and in my experiences at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock I have been blessed to have been taught by highly qualified professors who all welcomed the presence of an old guy taking up space in their classrooms. But in the back of my mind I knew that studying about mythological Greek gods that dated back to 700 BCE was going to require a very special person to make it interesting and stimulating. Luckily, I struck gold in the person of Dr. Jane H. Brown, Ph.D who not only possessed a wealth of information on this complex subject but had that unique gift to impart that knowledge to our class in a logical and understandable way as to hold one’s complete attention. In addition to the required textbooks on the subject, Dr. Brown provided an extensive collection of written outlines, graphics and documents in support of her lectures. And, finally, there were the oral presentations by the true undergraduates in my class, two of which will be referenced later. In fact I was so impressed with my entire experience I decided to write about it. However, the challenge for me was to sift through that mountain of information on a very complicated subject and extract just enough key points to construct a summary interesting enough for others to read.

One of the first things you need to know is that these gods and goddesses were no ordinary deity. Instead, they were created by Greek mortals in their own human image as opposed to the other way around as told in the Genesis creation story. As such, they often times would go back and forth between their divine image and their human form, or in some instances the form of some animal if it served their purpose . In fact Nietsche referred to them as “all too human” and a religion where “gods justify human life by living it”. However, true mortals were encouraged never to compete with these gods because as humans they could never win, and the gods were capable of doing some pretty nasty things even if they did. Also, one never knew if someone in the human form was a true god or goddess, so the message to mortals was to be wary of strangers coming to your door. Consequently, it is no surprise that Greek mythology is filled with examples of all the same hubris, emotions and frailties that humans experience including but not limited to love, lust, sex, deceit, betrayal, incest, murder, torture, mutilation, rape, treachery and hunger for power. To better understand how this worked, there are three stories I would like to briefly summarize as illustrations of these powers.

“The Judgement of Paris” - Unlike other periods of history, very little was codified about Greek mythology in book form, but Homer’s epic poems the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” about the famous Trojan War and its aftermath are the best known. Not only do they describe the events before, during and after that conflict, they introduce us to some principal Greek gods (e.g. Zeus, Athena, Hera and Poseidon who supported the Greeks; Aphrodite, Apollo and Artemis who supported Troy), as well as some other major players involved (e.g. Achilles, Agamemnon, Menelaos, Ajax and Odysseus, Calchas and Nestor for the Greeks; Hector and his cousins and brother, Paris and Priam for Troy). In short, this is a tale of love, jealousy and betrayal brought about by an argument between three vain goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite over who was the fairest among them and deserved to receive the golden apple offered by Eris, the goddess of Discord, as a confirmation of that title. Since Zeus knew better than to make that choice himself because it would create such resentment from the two losers, he instructed Hermes, the messenger god, to take all three of them to the Trojan prince Paris to make the selection. After being offered bribes by all three contenders, Paris chooses Aphrodite who had promised him possession of the most beautiful woman in the world as her bribe. Aphrodite then designates Helen just that, the most beautiful woman in the world. Naturally, Paris is smitten and ultimately selects Helen, a passive participant in all of this, to take back to Troy. The problem is, she is already married to Menelaos, so Aphrodite has to further persuade Helen to go with Paris. She is successful in this effort, even though Euripides contends in his tragedy “Helen” that she may never have actually gone to Troy but, rather, stopped in Egypt intead. Regardless, Menelaos is going to exact revenge for the taking of his wife and gathers up an army to bring her back, and the rest is history so they say.

While there may be other slightly different versions of this story, which is one of the real nuances of Greek mythology, we are compelled to rely on the existence of artifacts from that period to give us a better explanation of what really happened. In that regard there exists a multitude of art forms including wall paintings, vases, sculpture and coins, not to mention songs, plays and poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey that tell the story of not only the Trojan War but of other historical happenings. The trick is to accurately interpret those artifacts into meaningful messages. Besides Dr. Brown, others have done that for us, one being Susan Woodford in her book “The Trojan War in Ancient Art”, which is an easy to read account of many Greek myths which are displayed on a variety of items. Examples of two of the best known artifacts from this Archaic period are the Francois Vase circa 570BCE because it depicts so many different myths important too Greek mythology (to see click here ) and Dinos by Sophilos circa 580-570BCE because of its vivid and detailed portrayal of the prominent wedding procession of Peleus and Thetis (to see click here ). Just as interesting to me, though, is the identity of the artisans who created these fabulous works of art and who or what inspired them. Sadly, very little is known on this subject, but it is thought that many may have relied on muses, as well the same stories, plays and songs of the time to fulfill that purpose.

The two other examples of these deities behaving at their worst were given in oral reports by the talented fellow classmates mentioned earlier. The first was entitled “Aphrodite: Friend or Foe” by Catherine McGibbony, and the other was entitled “Contest between Apollo and Marsyas” by Adrian Quintanar. Both graciously granted me permission to quote from my class notes on their respective presentations in my own words with some added commentary. Hopefully, these are fair representations of what they said.
“Aphrodite: Friend or Foe” - While this daughter of Zeus and Dione, one of his six wives, was commonly known as the goddess of love, sexuality and beauty, she had another persona of being selfish, deceitful, manipulative and vindictive. In the words of Edith Hamilton in her 1940 book “MYTHOLOGY”, she “used her power chiefly to ensnare and betray”. Perhaps her bad attitude was a result of the origins of her birth based on the vengeful act of castration of her lover, Adonis. Regardless, we already know the havoc she reeked on Troy by persuading Helen to go there with Paris. If that were not enough she then goes and has sex with a mortal being, Anchises, who she warned not to boast about the liaison. But he did and paid the price of being struck by a thunderbolt from Zeus. And, finally, she plays a role in trying to get Phaedra to seduce a celibate Hippolytus who refuses her advances and they both die as a result. The lesson to be learned about Aphrodite is that even though she had many lovers, both gods and mortals, she is a much different version from Linda in Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite” and is not to be messed with, as she always destroys those who oppose her.

“Contest Between Apollo and Marsyas” - As noted above, mortals were advised never to compete with the gods because even if they won the contest, the losing god would exact his revenge. This story is a prime example of that admonition. One of Apollo’s identities, besides being the son of Zeus, was that of being the patron god of music and poetry which included the lyre. This happened to be an instrument that Marsyas claimed he could play better than Apollo, with the loser of the competition paying a price to be determined by the winner. However the contest came about, Marsyas was declared the winner of the first round in which his talent was judged to be basically equal to that of Appolo’s. However, in order to give himself a competitive advantage in the second round, Apollo played his flute turned upside down, a feat Marsyas could not begin to match. As agreed to in advance, Apollo could do whatever he wanted to with Marsysas, so he had him tied to a tree and splayed alive, thus reinforcing the lesson for mortals to stay away from these gods.

So, what have I gleaned from my experience with Greek Art and Myth? First, in addition to the vast array of spectacular art, sculpture and architecture that the ancient Greeks gave us, there are countless contributions they made to creating a more civilized society through language, philosophy (which deserves its own discussion), democracy, the Hippocratic Oath and the Olympic Games to name just a few. Even though none of these were mentioned here in the interest of time and space, they definitely should not be forgotten, particularly the Oracle on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi that advances the concept of moderation and self-restraint summed up simply as “know thyself”. Second, if gods and goddesses are formed in the same image as human beings with all of our flaws and imperfections, there are potentially very severe consequences in dealing with them. So, beware! And, finally, the author of Ecclesiastes, thought to have been the wisest of all biblical kings, King Solomon, may have had it right when he wrote “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”, because much of what transpired 2,700 years ago between those gods and goddesses, as well as their interactions with mortals, is no different than what we read or hear about today. Then the question is, why do these myths matter? Jeanette Winterson got the answer to that very question during her interview with Bill Moyers on his PBS series “On Faith and Reason” first broadcast on July 7, 2006. In essence Mr. Moyers contended they matter because being familiar with these ancient myths help perpetuate great stories relating to both good and evil, as well as rationalizing these two extremes. In other words we should learn from history or be doomed to it, which seems to have been our pattern over these centuries. Accordingly, it is mankind’s challenge to ACTUALLY LEARN from these ancient myths and maybe fool old King Solomon after all. With that said, I now look forward to exploring the City of Florence pre-Renaissance with Dr. Brown this semester, soak up a little bit more culture and further enrich my soul in the process.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

"In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love"

It all began with a fairly simple question from an old and dear friend who had inquired as to what my family linage was.  Yes, I had a vague notion that my father's ancestors for sure came from Germany and England, and that my mother's ancestors also came from England and perhaps Germany, but beyond that I had very little knowledge.  However, my lame ability to adequately respond to that question lit a spark in me to find out more about where I came from, which led me to digging into boxes of old family files and pictures that had lain dormant for years to find the answer.  Little did I know when I started this journey that a totally disconnected study of three books of the Old Testament would interject itself into this process, but more about that later.

One of the first surprises to come to my attention was the fact that the English ancestors from both my paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather's families came to America from England in the early 1600's.  Sure, I had seen the same old family photographs now in my possession of all great-grandparents taken at various times during the 19th century, but I had just assumed that for practical purposes that was where my history began.  To learn that there was traceable evidence that confirmed the existence of ancestors on our shores 200 years earlier was a huge revelation to me.  Unfortunately, I was not so fortunate with my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother's families, as the early 1800's were as far back as I could find any written record in my files of their existence on this continent.  However, in the case of my paternal grandfather, the records were much more comprehensive and detailed, thanks to the writing prowess of an elderly great aunt, thus giving me greater insight into my father's history.  Consequently, in the interest of time and space, I will concentrate solely on my paternal heritage up to the beginning of the 20th century for this first of what may become many chapters to answer that simple question posed above.

It all began in Friedelsheim, Bavaria, Germany where my great-grandfather, Jacob Lichty, one of eight children was born on May 6, 1826, to John, a watchmaker, and Elizabeth, a homemaker.  Like most immigrants coming to our shores in the 1800's seeking more freedom, the entire family made it to America in 1833, traveling up the Hudson River to Albany, New York, thence through the Erie Canal, completed just eight years earlier, to Buffalo, New York and finally across Lake Erie to Cleveland, Ohio, home of several family friends from Germany who had previously settled there.  Unfortunately, John fell ill early on and died shortly after making it to Ohio at the age of 42.  But like most immigrant families at the time, the surviving family began farming which eventually led my great-grandfather, Jacob, to purchase some rich bottom land in Gnadenhutten, the second oldest city in Ohio.  But also like many individuals of that era, Jacob's life was not without tragedy, losing two of his seven children to diphtheria and later his young wife, Christena at age 36 to unknown causes.  But as was also common back then, he soon remarried and he and his second wife, another Elizabeth, interestingly Christena's sister, had five more children, among whom was my grandfather, Ernest, and his sister, Bertha, who was the author mentioned above of this history.

By Bertha's account, Jacob was a kind and thoughtful person, always remembering the birthdays of all ten children, comforting them through their many illnesses and ferrying them when necessary to and from school during those many cold and snowy Ohio winters in either a large farm wagon or bob sled pulled by a double team of horses.  It was also during these cold wintry days that he would "grease the shoes" of his children who often made that two mile walk to school to make the shoes softer and more pliable, as well as to make them last longer.  To accomplish this task he had the village tin maker fabricate him a small copper can with a spout in which he would warm a mixture of grease and tallow with which he covered the shoes.  Then they would be placed near the coal stove at night to make them even more comfortable for the children the next day.  As a side note, years ago my father gave me that very can, which I treasure to this day.  But all of this love and affection for his family could not spare him further tragedy in almost losing my grandfather, Ernest, to inflammatory rheumatism.  In fact it was Ernest's deteriorating health that eventually led the Lichty family to Arkansas in the early 1900's to seek relief in the warm baths of Hot Springs.  And then there was, Anna, his and Elizabeth's first-born daughter who moved to Alaska as a religious missionary, a long distance separation that brought much sorrow to them both with, in their own words, "the distance being so great and the traveling so uncertain".   

While not a highly educated man in the formal sense, Jacob was a self-taught man who prided himself on conversation and never lacked for expressive words and sentences when visiting with the educated clergymen who would come to the village to take charge of the Moravian church which he faithfully attended.  As a deeply religious man he would conduct family worship twice a day, always saying the prayers in his native German regardless of who might be visiting in his home at the time.  He died on January 26, 1909, as he had lived, "easily and gently".  To quote from his obituary, "Mr. Lichty was a good citizen and neighbor, an honor to his community and, in so far as mortals may be, to his God.  To a rare degree he was genial, kind and helpful.  His virtues were positive, unmarred by glaring faults.  He weighed his words as if each were a precious jewel.   He was a modest man never seeking to push himself into the public eye.  He lived a quiet life.  Nevertheless, he lived as if conscious that the scrutiny of the World was upon him, reminding one of him who prayed for grace to do all the good he could do without knowing it."       

Now, just what does all of this have to do with the Old Testament, with particular emphasis on Ecclesiastes, as well as the title of this blog?   While the exact authorship of Ecclesiastes is not known, it is thought by many to have been at the very least influenced by King Solomon, the wisest of all ancient biblical kings.  And like many books of scripture, it is open to various interpretations, one of which is that our time on earth is much like mist or vapor, very temporary and not very meaningful.   As such, our beginning and our end have no great significance in the larger scheme of things, so one should not be consumed by them.  Rather, we should just eat, drink and be merry and enjoy the life which we have been given whatever its length.  I've always thought that to be a fairly limited and  hedonistic interpretation, filled with risk and danger not only to one's existence on earth but to one's soul if there is any rationale for an afterlife.  But the thought did occur to me as I began this genealogical journey of why bother investing all of this time and energy exploring history and heredity if in the end our existence does not matter.  Ultimately, I decided it does matter, and it matters a lot.  For one thing, an exploration of our past forces us to understand and appreciate the many sacrifices our forefathers paid to get us where we are today.  In so doing it also goes a long way to explain why we are who we are.  And, finally, it might just give us insight into some principles which we all could apply to today's living and experiences.  A clear example of the latter for me was the life of my great-grandfather, Jacob, and how his deep faith in the Moravian Church played such an important part in his enduring the many, many heartbreaks and challenges of life in the 19th century.  In fact his church's motto, "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love" would seem to serve as an excellent guide for our national leaders to follow as they struggle to build a consensus to address the many problems facing our country in this 21st century.      



Friday, October 19, 2012

Do We Want a President, or Do We Want a Boss?

Having weathered these past few months of presidential campaign rhetoric from both sides to the point of numbness, I, like most Americans, can hardly wait until the results of November 6th become history and we can then focus our attention on the many other important issues facing our country.  However, one thing that this particular campaign has caused me to focus on is a question I have pondered for many years and that is "do businessmen really make great political leaders"?

My first experience with this even being an issue was in 1966 when Raymond Rebsamen, a much respected business leader in our state ran for governor of Arkansas.  I vividly remember being impressed with his campaign vision of "Reach with Rebsamen" which projected him as one who had been very successful in the business world and wanted to bring that same talent and acumen to state government and make it more efficient.  As a young man trying to develop my own business career, his message had great resonance with me so I voted for him.  He ultimately lost to another well known and successful businessman, Winthrop Rockefeller, a Republican, who Mr. Rebsamen, a Democrat, himself described as someone who "served our state well", and he did.  Subsequently, we have had a series of businessmen who have sought that same office with a mixed bag of successes and failures.

But throughout these many election cycles both at the state and national level, I cannot recall when there has been as much emphasis placed on business experience being such a dominant qualifier as in the current presidential election.  It's as if one's personal net worth is the only thing that counts.  The main thing wrong with that criterion is that there is another side to businessmen that does not always render them as being the best qualified to serve in public office.  For starters, many seem to share the same linear mindset of maximizing profits at all cost, as well as possessing the singular power to make whatever decisions are necessary to achieve that end, with little or no responsibility to answer for their actions other than to their boards of directors, all of whom have been chosen by them.  If labor costs can be reduced in another country, go there.  If an employee's production quota goes down, fire him.  If a plant is not profitable, close it.  There is no public debate about these decisions or their impact on communities, society or national loyalty.  They are just simply coldly calculated business decisions based on one's sole desire to increase the bottom line.  Seemingly built into the DNA of these same corporate executives is a tendency to bark an order and expect immediate compliance by all underlings, no questions asked.  The problem with applying these same business executive attributes to government is that a whole slew of other considerations have to be factored into the decision making process because the end result is a broad public policy that applies to all citizens and not just a single corporate enterprise.

For one, there is a vast body of laws, rules and regulations that have been established by congress over the past 250 years, not to mention the Constitution, that must be respected and adhered to in making such decisions.  What's good for the bottom line does not always translate into what's best for the public at large.  Just witness the $16 trillion debt that has accrued over two administrations for a variety of complex reasons not to be explained here, but clearly resulted in funding many things important to the fabric of America, including stabilizing the economy and supporting social programs for those in need, both significant and valid roles of government.  To address these many needs of a nation requires formulating sound and reasonable public policy issues, getting the support of the American people and then persuading a wildly divergent group of other elected officials to approve these initiatives.  In other words, it requires political tact to form a consensus, artful skills not necessarily developed in corporate America.  Just think of it this way, if America were a corporation run by a business executive, we would have been declared bankrupt, shut down and sold off in pieces to the highest bidder long ago.  Consequently, just running government operations in the most efficient manner financially, particularly in stressful economic times like we have experienced these past four years, is not the primary role of government, as there are way too many other responsibilities which have to be met that may not always pass the cost/benefit test often times used in the business world. 

The contrast between these two approaches to the decision making process could not have been more clearly demonstrated than during the last two presidential debates where aggression appears to have been the measure by which effective leadership was being judged.  Debate rules to which both candidates had agreed, including not invading each others' space, no pointing fingers at your rival and refraining from asking each other questions, were blindly ignored, principally by the one participant who keeps touting his business credentials.  Hopefully, our nation will be spared such rude bullyism in next Tuesday's final debate and we will be allowed to gauge the true, meaningful and relevant qualifications of the two candidates in a calm and rational environment.  As James Lipton, Dean Emeritus of the Actors Studio in New York, most notably concluded this week on MSNBC's October 17th, HARDBALL program, "Do we want a president, or do we want a boss?"

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Role of Government

With fewer than 90 days now left before this nation can finally put our latest presidential election behind us, it might be useful to examine the central question that is at the heart of all the vitriol which has spewed from both sides over these past few months - i.e. just what is the role of government in our lives?  On the right you have the popular position that was advanced by Ronald Reagan in the 1980's that government is the problem and needs to get out of the way of private enterprise.  That spawned "Starve the Beast", "Trickle Down" and "Compassionate Conservatism" policies which I think have been abject failures.  On the left you have the position that government is the solution to our many problems and needs to be even more active in framing policies that improve our well being.  "The New Deal", The New Frontier" and "The Great Society" come to mind, but they came with great financial costs.  While this basic divide is not new, as even the framers of our constitution bickered over the same issue, what is different now is the total polarization of both sides that has created absolute gridlock and inaction at the very time we need our congress to be addressing full time the many profound issues that currently face our nation.  Instead they decide to take a five week recess. 

While I do not pretend to have the ultimate answer to what the role of government should be, some very qualified individuals have provided us with a prism through which we might at least begin to rationally examine this question.   In this regard perhaps the best place to start is with David Wessel's July 31st interview on NPR's Fresh Air program discussing his new book Red Ink about the federal budget debate.  Go to http://www.npr.org/2012/07/31/157610155/facing-the-fiscal-cliff-congress-next-showdown and listen to the entire discussion, but his main thesis is that unless something is done before December 31st of this year we face a "fiscal cliff" of higher taxes and draconian spending cuts that he likens to pulling the trigger on a loaded gun.  Furthermore, he blames this potential crisis on the fundamental impasse on the role of government emphasized by the central question posed in this blog - one side wants less government, one side wants more.  While we all are aware of the recent events that have led us to this precipice (e.g. two unfunded wars, reduced taxes, prescription benefits not paid for and a horrible economic crisis unlike any since the 1930's), some either do not understand or do not care about the true consequences of the political paralysis which has gripped our national legislative process due in large measure to a new wave of congressmen who are willing to risk everything just to advance their ideology.  And now that one of those ideologues, Paul Ryan, has been chosen as Mitt Romney's running mate, this divide is now going to be made even more prominent because, in effect, Mr. Romney has now made Mr. Ryan's proposed Path to Prosperity budget his.  As such, it becomes the centerpiece of Mr. Romney's agenda and, therefore, his vision for the role of government.

For those who may not know, Mr. Ryan wants to essentially gut Medicare as we know it, transfer Medicaid to the states; severely cut spending on programs that help the poor; do away with subsidies to agriculture, education, transportation and scientific research; revise the tax code to benefit the rich; and abolish many other programs that make this country great, including earmarks he once used to great advantage to resurrect the economy around his  own hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin.  Included in that government aid, which he seems to so despise, was a water treatment plant, funds for a technical college to retrain GM workers, improvements for a bus system, expansion of I-90 and creation of the Janesville Innovation Center to provide space from which entrepreneurs could launch their business innovations, facts well documented in an article by Ryan Lizza in the August 6th edition of The New Yorker magazine.  All of these government benefits illustrate precisely the point President Obama made on July 13th when he proclaimed in part that "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help" and that "Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges".   What Mr. Ryan ultimately plans to do about Social Security is a little more murky, but he was the main architect of the privatization plan that George Bush abandoned in 2005, even though Mr. Ryan himself apparently survived on those benefits after the sudden death of his father (per article in the August 12th edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)So how disingenuous is it for someone to ridicule and want to dismantle the very government programs from which he so personally and politically benefited over the years?  In short, some of his ideas, which came from his ardent attachment to the writings of Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, are so severe that even Newt Gingrich labeled them "right-wing social engineering" during the Republican primaries.  Read even more about Mr. Ryan's thinking from a New Republic article dated August 11, 2012 at  http://www.tnr.com/blog/plank/106029/ryan-romney-vp-budget-cuts-medicare-medicaid-voucher-tax-cut

So, what exactly is the proper role of government?  Frankly, I think the answer to that question lies somewhere between the two extremes alluded to above, but government policies that further enrich the rich and only increase funding for the military but ignore the needs of the poor, elderly, infirm and disadvantaged are totally misguided, wrong-headed and bad for this country as a whole in my view.  Surely, we Americans deserve better than that.