Monday, August 22, 2011

Americans Elect 2012

DEFINITION: Corporatocracy – a system of government run by corporations and which exists solely to serve the needs of those corporations.

When I was much younger—and much more na├»ve—I bought into the popular liberal idea that the United States was essentially a democracy that had gone slightly off-track since the election of Richard Nixon. According to this line of thinking (which is often espoused by those in the Democratic Party establishment), if we could just elect a progressive to the White House, many of the problems currently facing the poor and middle class in this country could be corrected and we would once again be an example of justice and liberty for the rest of the world.

The problem with this myth—and I now believe that it is indeed a myth—is that we have had three so-called progressives in the White House since the 70s, and, if anything, the situation of the working classes in this country has deteriorated more than ever. The richest 10% of Americans now control 2/3s of the wealth in this country (see article in Mother Jones). While the “Great Recession” that hit the United States has decimated the poor and middle classes, the wealthy in this country are doing better than ever with corporate profits at all-time highs.

Three years ago, in a return to the silly idealism of my youth, I voted for Obama, assuming that anyone who had been a community organizer in his past, would work tirelessly to correct the economic imbalances inherent in our system. What I forgot is that Democrats—and this includes President Obama, I’m afraid—are as much beholden to The Corporatocracy as the Republicans are. When the economic crisis hit, Obama, like Bush, did all he could to protect banks and Wall Street, but very little at all to help the 25 million Americans who are either unemployed or underemployed.

So, if our two political parties are basically two branches of the same corporatist party that runs our country, what are we to do to wrest control back from the power elites? One positive solution that many are discussing is to take corporate money out of politics by having public funding of all campaigns. While I think that this idea is quite admirable, I doubt that Republicans, Democrats, or their corporate sponsors will ever support the idea, because there is too much money to be made from the current system.

Recently, however, a group called American’s Elect 2012 has proposed an idea that could potentially shake up the strangle-hold that the two parties have on American politics (see article in The Daily Beast). Their idea was to create a completely open on-line nominating system for the 2012 Presidential election. The candidate that is chosen—by the people instead of by party elites—will then supposedly run in all 50 states for President.

My Democrat friends have already told me that they think this is a terrible idea. Republicans, they maintain, will march in lock step and nominate a reactionary that they will, as usual, all rally behind. Progressives, on the other hand, will be split between those who think that Obama at least is the lesser of two evils and therefore should be supported and those silly idealists who support the third party candidate nominated by the Americans Elect process. The result will be a President Perry or Bachmann, who will cause much more harm to the working classes than any Democrat would ever do.

While I think that the dangers involved in splitting the progressive vote in the United States are worth considering, I for one am tired of always supporting the “lesser of two evils” and finding my heart broken time and again. Besides, if it is indeed true that we really only have one corporate party with two branches, then voting for any Democrat is simply voting for a perpetuation of the whole, damned corrupt system whereby a small percentage of wealthy individuals control almost every aspect of the life of this country.

So I plan to support Americans Elect and whatever candidate comes out of their—I mean our—nominating process. And, if by doing so, the Republicans win the White House, then at least progressives will have a clear enemy to fight, rather than being deceived--yet again--by a supposed friend who in the end is probably no real friend at all.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Autocratic Temperament in Our Times

Autocratic regimes throughout the Middle East have been falling one after the other--first in Tunisia, then in Egypt, and now it appears in Lybia as well. The Arab Spring gives us hope for a world completely free of petty tyrants and vicious dictators, regardless of whether they rule over occupied Tibet or the boardrooms of Wall Street. It is this dream of a world in which the masses control their own destinies that underlies the political vision of that poet-sage and neo-beatnik from Brooklyn, Alcibiades J. Grunthaler. Here's what Grunthaler has to say about the psychological make-up of the autocrat that all but insures his or her ultimate downfall:

"The capricious autocrat is incapable of compromise even on the most insignificant of matters, because she necessarily views herself as being all-knowing and completely infallible. To admit that anyone else has the slightest amount of expertise to offer on any matter is to admit that she is something less than omnipotent. And this is one thing that the capricious autocrat can never willingly acknowledge to herself or to anyone else.

Because she and she alone knows what is best for all, she can tolerate no disagreement, no alternative perspectives, and, above all else, absolutely no dissenting viewpoints. Thus she surrounds herself with those who are temperamentally and intellectually most like herself -- yes-women who will always agree with whatever dictates flow from her divinely inspired lips -- and those eunuchs who daily sing hosannas to her eternal glory.

Because the capricious autocrat views her wisdom as divinely inspired, those who dare challenge her mandates -- no matter how erratic and destructive these mandates might be -- must be treated as infidels. And infidels must be crushed at all costs. For the mere existence of those who dissent is enough to throw into question her so-called omnipotence and shows the autocrat up for what she truly is: an insecure, intellectually barren parasite feeding off the industry and creativity of those she seeks to dominate.

Although the capricious autocrat may do considerable harm to the polis she seeks to control, in the end she must inevitably fail in her quest at total domination. She must fail, because each act of domination engenders greater and greater resentment, and resentment leads to resistance, and resistance to outright revolution. In fact, the autocrat cannot withstand the people's revolution, because she has no real power-base or support other than in her own mind. When the end of her reign comes, all of her self-proclaimed accomplishments will be swept away on the garbage heap of oblivion and her very name will become infamous with future generations.

And thus it is for all those who dare violate the sovereign will of the people...."

From Sic Semper: The Political Writing of A.J. Grunthaler

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Ideas...They're, Like, Sooo 1990s

I came across an interesting editorial in the August 14th New York Times Sunday Review, entitled, "The Elusive Big Idea." The gist is that there are no more big theories, big ideas, or big visions, because we are living in a "post idea" world. In the age of Twitter and Facebook -- the so-called "Information Age" -- people are looking for small bits of titillating information, not nasty, messy, complex, abstract ideas. In short, the enlightenment is dead and buried, and with it the appreciation for man's ability to use reason to make sense of his world.

This may not mean very much to some people -- no-nothing Presidential candidates, for example -- but it should trouble those of us who care about the future of the planet. Rarely before in human history has our species been confronted by so many interconnected global problems that threaten our continued existence on Mother Earth: climate change, peak oil, a global economic meltdown, species extinction, political and religious extremism, and the prospect of Michelle Bachman as a presidential candidate, to name but a few. These issues are difficult to solve precisely because they are the result of our human and planetary interconnectedness--something that is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. The global nature of these problems also means that we either solve them together or we go down in flames together.

But to solve problems like these, you need people trained to think critically, rationally, and conceptually. We need people, in other words, who know how to do THE BIG IDEA thing. And that's something we don't have any longer. Sure, we all know everything about Lady Gaga's latest fashion escapades, but that sort of information is not going to prevent sea levels from rising and swamping countries like Bangladesh.

Now higher education has failed completely to help train a future generation of big thinkers. During the past thirty years, we've abandoned the liberal arts in favor of vocational and technical educational models that do little more than reinforce student's fixation on information over ideas. The marginalization -- or wholesale elimination -- of philosophy from most many college's requirements, in particular, means that the next generation of movers and shakers won't be provided with the intellectual tools they need to engage in the sort of rational thinking that can help solve some of our most pressing global problems.

Do I have hopes that this situation will change any time soon? Probably not. The Information Age is here to stay and with it social networking programs that are rewiring our brains for the worse. And, given the sort of people who are in charge of our education system in this country, it seems unlikely that solutions will be coming out of higher education. The only solution that I can conceive -- if, indeed, there even is a solution at this point -- is for individual human beings, alone or in small groups with other like-minded individuals, to commit themselves to lives of intellectual engagement. Here are my recommendations for those who are interested in maintaining their capacity for rational thought at a time when most human beings seem to be losing theirs:

1) Delete your Facebook and Twitter accounts and limit your cellphone use.
2) Learn how to be lazy. Spend a minimum of 1 hour a day engaged in idle day-dreaming. It sure worked like a charm for Einstein and Edison!
3) Read great works all the time (start with Homer and work your way to a Confederacy of Dunces)
3) Write something every day. Keep a journal, maintain a blog like this one, or write your own book. It doesn't matter about the quality of what you write or who appreciates it or not. Just keep writing.
4) Major in philosophy, or at least dual major in it, or at least take some classes in the subject.

If you do all this,
when the Long Emergency that James Howard Kunstler prophesizes about happens, you will be in a position to offer the kind of visionary leadership that the world will sorely need. And, even if we don't have a kind of nasty planetary cataclysm, you will certainly be much better off than those sorry individuals who think that the quality of a person's life is measured by the number of their tweets.

Friday, August 5, 2011

On the Ethics of Quid Pro Quo

I disgusted a friend recently when I suggested that human beings might be better off if we adopted the moral stance of my Italian ancestors—what I call the ethics of quid pro quo. Now, my grandmother, my aunts and uncles, and my parents probably wouldn’t use that particular expression to describe their unique moral outlook on life, but that is precisely what they always advocated as the only decent form of moral behavior that a person could adopt.

Quid pro quo. You take care of me and I take care of you. I come to your assistance when you are in need and you do the same for me when I’m in trouble. I don’t ask of you anything more than I’d be willing to give and expect you to provide me with the same courtesy. There’s an exquisite harmony involved in this sort of exchange. It’s the way good friends almost automatically operate, and, when the delicate balance between the “quid” and the “quo” is maintained, both parties feel enriched, and neither is diminished morally or spiritually.

When I was growing up in Queens, my parents instilled the idea in me that we had a duty to give just as much as we have received from others—whether these others were family, friends, neighbors or members of the larger community. If a family member had us over to celebrate Thanksgiving at their house, we’d always have them to ours for Easter. If an aunt gave my sister or me a gift worth $10 for our birthdays, you can bet your bottom dollar that my cousins would receive a gift worth at least that much from my parents on their birthdays. If a neighbor was generous with food or time, you could automatically assume that my parents would make sure to take care of them in some equally beneficial way. The formula for reciprocity was never exact, but it always worked out in a way that seemed to satisfy everyone.

The reason my friend, who is an incredibly spiritual person, was horrified by this position was because he thought that the proper moral stance should be one of Christian altruism. In other words, we should give to those who are in need with no thought at all to being paid back for our efforts. My friend certainly understands the spirit that animates the Gospels—unlike those hypocrites who call themselves Christians, but whose true gospel is that of crass, unfettered Capitalism—and I respect him for his consistency. My problem with this moral position, however, is precisely that it expects little or nothing from those whom we serve. In the end, it treats the recipients of our largesse like moral inferiors who are incapable of authentic human relationships (since true relationships between individuals always involve at least some degree of reciprocity) and renders them impotent as moral beings (since they have no incentive to act on their own behalf).

Despite my reservations with Christian altruism as a moral system, it certainly is preferable to the kind of egoistic ethics that most Americans seem to practice. We’ve raised generation after generation of men and women who assume that everyone—their parents, their teachers, the State—should take care them, but that they have no obligation to care for anyone else. Americans have no problem cutting essential programs for the poor or sending Blacks and Latinos off to fight their wars, but don’t ask them to give up any of their cherished entitlements, pay a bit more in taxes for the social goods they receive, or send their own sons or daughters off to fight our absurd wars. America, by and large, has become a nation of all quo and no quid.

Restoring the proper balance in our relationships with our fellow human beings, I believe, is the first step in getting our country back on the right track. A quid pro quo approach to ethics automatically assumes that we are all equal, all in this together, and have an obligation to provide reciprocal care for one another. Naturally, there will be those in our society who, for one reason or another, cannot reciprocate for the goods that they’ve received (infants, children up to a certain age, the seriously mentally ill or physically disabled). But we can ask a bit more even of those who, on the surface of it, might seem to have less to give, and we can ask a heck-of-a-lot more from those who have been blessed with abundance.

You take care of me and I’ll take care of you. It sounds like a petty approach to life, but just imagine if everyone—you, me, members of Congress, CEOs of large corporations—tried to live according to this dictum every day. Is there really any doubt that we’d be in much better shape as a society than where we are right now?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Who the Hell is Norman L. Livergood and What Does He Want From Me?

As part of my on-going effort to streamline my web profile--for better or worse, I now have over 15 years of web resources that I've created--I recently did a search to see what came up under my name, and much to my surprise, I found a critique of a short piece I did in the 90s to introduce students to the philosophy of Socrates. It wasn't supposed to be a scholarly article, but a general overview of Socrates' thought for undergraduate students who knew absolutely nothing about the great philosopher.

The critique was written by a fellow named Norman L. Livergood, who apparently was less than smitten by what I had written:

"Mr. Russo is not particularly any worse (or better) than most academics, but his unenlightened misunderstanding of Plato is typical of scholastic 'professors.' Academic 'professors' are the modern equivalent of the charlatans Plato opposed, the sophists.

What is especially perplexing is how a scholastic so-called 'Plato expert' (self-appointed) can comprehend certain elements of Plato's philosophy and yet--in the next paragraph sometimes--totally misrepresent what Plato is saying. This kind of selective, limited understanding is particularly true of such scholars as Russo." (from:

I'll pass over Mr. Livergood's ad hominum attacks on me, except to point out that I certainly would never claim to be an "expert" on Plato's thought. I'm just a simple teacher of philosophy who tries to the best of his ability to make complex thought accessible to the average college student.

Concerning the content of what I wrote, the basic insight that I had expressed in the original piece would certainly be accepted as true by most well-informed Socrates scholars. Socrates' goal in cross-examining the young men of Athens undoubtedly had both a negative as well as a positive function. The negative function is obvious: it is to show the arrogant individuals with whom he is debating that they really don't know that which they profess to know. But, if this was Socrates' sole philosophical purpose, then he would have been little better than any Sophist. No, Socrates' ultimate purpose was a positive one: his method aimed at leading himself and those with who he was debating to a higher, universal truth about the right way to live.

I don't know what Mr. Livegood's own position on Socrates is because I haven't read his book (since it's only $10 I probably will check it out at some point just to see what his beef with me actually is). I would strongly encourage him, however, to cite the text version of this piece, which will be coming out in my new anthology, Ancient Wisdom for Modern Minds. I don't think that's much to ask...especially coming from a modern "Sophist" like myself

Monday, August 1, 2011

Philosophy of Mojo: Part 1

From the Writing of Alcibiades J. Grunthaler:

There are those who believe that there is an unlimited amount of mojo in the universe and therefore mojo depletion is of no concern. They could not be further from the truth.

When the Fontalis Plentitudo of Universal Mojo (FPUM) created the current reality in which we are so blessed to inhibit, he shed his own mojo reserves so that all who are able may partake of it. But the great Fontalis is by no means infinite in mojosity, and therefore the sum total of all mojo in the universe is of limited quantity.

Mojo can be measured in human beings according to the Mojo Indicator Scale (MIS), created by the illustrious philosopher, Rocco Capamezzo, who himself was bursting at the seams with mojosity. The scale ranks mojo levels from 1 (total mojo depletion) to 10 (an incarnation of the FPUM). The average male has a mojo level of approximately 3.2. Here's how certain luminaries throughout history rank on the Mojo Indicator Scale:

George Patton (warrior) - 9.9
Pablo Picasso (artist) - 9.4
Jim Morrison (aka, Mr. Mojo Risin) - 9.3
Don Hazlitt (artist) - 9.2
Theodore Roosevelt - 8.7
Bernie Sanders (politician) - 8.6
Snookie (personality) - 8.4
Hillary Clinton (politician) - 8.2
Sara Silverman (commedian) -7.4
Barak Obama (politician) - 2.1
Rush Limbaugh (entertainer) - 1.3

Now, although mojo is limited in human beings, this in no way means that mojo is static. It can be increased or diminished based onseveral factors, the most important of which is the other people with who we choose to interact. There are those individuals who can be called mojo enhancers (ME*), since interaction with such individuals almost always lead to an increase in mojo levels. Mojo enhancers are rare, and, when you find one, make him or her your dearest friend immediately. Such individuals can often be found in divey bars, drinking cheep beer during happy hour and chatting with an assortment of colorful low-lifes.

Mojo depleters (MD*), on the other hand, are fairly common. They sap your vital energy, leaving you in such a constant state of enervation and psychic enervation that true creativity becomes impossible. The petty bureaucrat, the sterile administrator, the shriveled up has-been, and the shrill know-it-all are all almost always mojo depleters. Stay far away from them, shun them like the plague...for they will be your destruction!

Alcibides J. Gruntaler. On the Philosophy of Mojo. 2 Vols.