The Resilience of Evil

December 7, 2015

Whac-A-MoleIn the wake of the most recent mass killings on U.S. soil, and the various posturings and evasions of our politicians, it’s time for another political column. However, in contrast to my usual rant, I’ll endeavor to make this post well-reasoned and scholarly. In the style of a philosophical treatise, the separate arguments will be enumerated, and footnotes will document the sources.

I. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”1

I.a. Syed Farook, a U.S. citizen, born and raised here.

I.b. Dylann Roof, a U.S. citizen, born and raised here.

I.c. Adam Lanza, a U.S. citizen, born and raised here.

I.d. James Holmes, a U.S. citizen, born and raised here.

I.e. Eric Harris, a U.S. citizen, born and raised here.

I.f. Dylan Klebold, a U.S. citizen, born and raised here.

I.g.–I.z. Et al., et al., et al.

II. Evil cannot be eliminated from the world.

II.a. Evil has been with us since the first human beings.2

II.b. Evil will not succumb to bombs, ground troops, atomic weapons or—except in fantasy movies—magic light sabers.

II.c. Indeed, the resilient, slippery and protean nature of evil—its ability to pop up in new forms in new places—suggests a popular game whose name now connotes a repetitive and impossible task.3

II.d. As point I above indicates, evil lives in all of us, not in any particular place.

II.d.1. Hence there is no one place to attack it.

III. Nor can the enticement of evil be eliminated.

III.a. Some types of evil will always look prettier or sound more convincing than good.4

III.b. In the basic sense, each person is tempted not by outsiders, but by his or her own desire.5

So, if we can’t get rid of evil, what might we do as a society? No easy solution exists. But we could try to make the good—that is, sane, peaceful, life-respecting behavior—more attractive. For instance, we could work to reduce poverty and the huge gap between the privileged and underprivileged. By doing so, we would boost the sense that everyone has something to live for rather than commit murder-mayhem-suicide for. Instead of empty patriotism, we Americans could then speak with a justified pride in our country, as one wild-eyed Revolutionary-era radical suggested:

When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am the friend of its happiness: when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government.6

  1. Pogo the Possum, 1971; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pogo_(comic_strip).
  2. Genesis, 300 B.C.E. or earlier.
  3. Whac-A-Mole; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whac-A-Mole.
  4. John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1667.
  5. James 1:14, c. 100 C.E.
  6. Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791.

Guns and Cheesesteaks

November 22, 2015

s[r]headlineI have a new guest post on the “s [r] blog” from Superstition Review. Here’s the link.

The post is titled “Guns and Cheesesteaks,” and it’s probably not quite as silly as the title suggests. In fact, I believe it’s as meaningful as any recent utterances by Donald Trump.

This past weekend, my neighborhood in Philadelphia had the privilege of hosting Pope Francis. The Pope’s outdoor mass took place roughly two city blocks from my house. What a momentous celebration!

Reporters and bloggers have already published hundreds of commentaries and thousands of pictures about his visit (see, for instance, this post by the inimitable Liz Spikol), so I won’t attempt to talk about the religious, social or political aspects. This essay offers a micro view, focusing on snapshots taken within one block of my house—some within a dozen steps of my front door—to show how we readied the place for the pontiff. I hope our way of honoring a great dignitary will become a model for other localities.

Because this was the largest National Special Security Event (NSSE) ever, we took extra care to make our little community safe and appropriate for the Pope and his million-odd admirers. To begin, we closed the streets to traffic and towed away any parked cars left behind:


Above: Before the preparations began. Below: Afterward.


We installed extra trash cans, and they were prettier than our usual ones:

Trash cans

We removed the mailbox, which might conceal bombs, weaponized hoagies or other dangerous objects:

Before: "this collection box will be removed.... This is Due to the Papal visit."

The sign says: “Please be advised that this collection box will be removed on Thursday, September 24th, 2015 and will be reinstalled on Monday, September 28th, 2015. This is Due to the Papal visit to Philadelphia.”

We blocked access from side streets:



We also blocked the sidewalks of intersecting streets, leaving just enough room for pedestrians to squeeze through. This was to prevent terrorists from swooping in on golf carts or riding mowers:


We installed air-quality monitors to warn of chemical and radiation attacks (though some residents who tend to be gaseous worried about setting them off accidentally):


We set up checkpoints:


We placed sharpshooters on rooftops. (Sorry, no picture. You know what guys with high-powered rifles look like.)

We brought in large groups of friendly young men in camouflage uniforms:


We conducted constant surveillance from helicopters:


Looks like a spider up there, but it was much louder.

A little farther from our house, I spotted one low-flying Osprey, barely a hundred yards over the rooftops. This is an aircraft used only by the Marines and Air Force. Even the National Guard guys stared up at it in wonder, perhaps worried about its notorious crash record.

Of course we closed our schools and most of our small businesses. We detoured or stopped buses. To make room for the faithful, about half of our residents left town. Restaurants, if they stayed open, were empty.

Even the multigenerational Catholic family next door—a family that’s lived in the neighborhood for more than half a century—departed when they were unable to get tickets to the event. They planned to watch on TV from the Jersey shore.

So our neighborhood was all prepared to welcome Pope Francis. Proud of our efforts, we were ready to celebrate with him.

The only problem?

Our neighborhood wasn’t here anymore.

Our very empty block

Our thriving city block


Tzapping the Borders

August 31, 2015

I’ve never before used this blog to endorse a commercial product—other than my own books, of course—but a special case has arisen concerning the very integrity of our country, and I feel I must alert my fellow Americans to what I’ve discovered.

We’ve all listened to the proposals from presidential candidates to build a wall along the Mexican border to stem illegal immigration, and Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin has logically extended the proposal to the Canadian line as well. There is nothing hysterical or paranoid about these concerns. Just pause a moment to think what would become of this country if we allowed the Mexican-Canadian rapist-murdering-drug-dealers to steal the lawn-care jobs of American workers!

There is a major problem, however, that none of the candidates has addressed. The barriers would be enormously expensive to construct, possibly requiring a rise in taxes that no patriotic American would support. (Those who suggest that cinder block and labor could be imported cheaply from Mexico miss the point entirely.)

Moreover, the Great Wall advocates have overlooked thousands of miles of other entry points: the Gulf Coast, the Great Lakes and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Who knows when Mediterranean people-smugglers will invest in better boats so they can drop off Syrian refugees on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City? There’s also the possibility, remote at this time but certainly a concern for the future, that alien shark-creatures might swarm ashore and apply for work cooking fish fillets at McDonald’s. And what about mutant penguins? Has anyone considered the mutant penguins?

Thus it’s apparent that the political debate has been riddled with gaps in logic as huge as the holes in Carly Fiorina’s resume. Luckily, technology—American technology, best in the world!—can again save our butts as well as our souls. A leading innovator in the security industry, Pharr Integrated Security Solutions of southern Texas, is now marketing the Tzapp Total Border System, and this is the product I’m compelled to tell you about.

Based on the groundbreaking work of legendary physicist Seymour Tzapp, the laser-based system is both efficient and economical. One relatively inexpensive laser weapon, adjusted properly, can protect 425 miles of border or coastline; hence a complete system would cost a fraction of a Great Wall.

One unit of the Tzapp Total BS system

One unit of the Tzapp Total BS

How does it work? When any object larger than a hare begins to move across the secured line, the Tzapp Total BS delivers a pulsed, narrow-beam wallop strong enough to enforce immediate retreat. In tests conducted in the Rio Grande Valley, the system has scattered deer, terrified ocelots and caused skunks to spray themselves uncontrollably. The Texas tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri), once Tzapped, has been timed at 30 mph, outrunning a raccoon.

One additional feature: The Total BS leaves a prominent raised scar, curved like a Nike swoosh in bright orange. This will prove as embarrassing to a Mexo-Canadian rapist-murderer as to a nefarious opossum, and a single Tzapp will be enough to discourage future transgressions, especially if the lasers are aimed to strike a delicate part of the anatomy. During the beta test, the tortoise was so mortified he never came out of his shell again.

I would supply a link to further information about the Tzapp system, but in its haste to bring this amazing product to the American public, the company has not yet developed an online presence. However, all interested parties—politicians, military officers, gun freaks and ordinary citizens—are invited to visit corporate headquarters in Pharr, a lovely community just a few miles from the McAllen Miller International Airport. Although it’s a small and unprepossessing city, you can’t miss the signal that you’ve arrived: a sign at the border tells you that you’ve gone to Pharr.

On Facebook recently, I saw that a friend had linked to an article on homelessness with an image of a destitute person wrapped in an American flag. Inspired by that, and by the latest figures on poverty, I’m reposting a little essay that appeared in the online magazine Satire (now apparently defunct) in 1999. Today the piece strikes me as snarky rather than funny, and yet, in the current political climate, I doubt that I could write even this politely—I’m much more angry and depressed now. That in itself says something, I guess.

Public Art and the Homeless: A Civic Improvement Project

My city, Philadelphia, is blessed with a multitude of public art. Our downtown alone boasts dozens of outdoor sculptures, many by internationally famous artists. We have 1,800 community murals—more than any other American city by last count. We possess fountains with water-spouting turtles; a bridge in the shape of a human finger; a public toilet with aluminum acrobats on the roof; a 45-foot steel clothespin opposite City Hall. And each time a new work is unveiled, my wife grumbles.

“Why couldn’t they spend that million dollars on something useful?” she mutters. “What about the homeless people wandering the streets, for instance? What good is another stupid sculpture?”

Now, my wife is not a Philistine, or even a Phyllis. She appreciates art as much as the next harried middle-middle-classer. At every major museum show she wedges dutifully into the crowds, straining for a glimpse of the framed objects on the wall. She believes, nevertheless, that items like food, clothing and shelter are somewhat more important, and that they should be distributed with a greater measure of equity.

I can’t argue with her priorities, but I have tried to dispute her connection between art and social causes. The donors, I say, the ones who contributed for the latest sculpture—they weren’t offering the same funds to the poor. If they hadn’t ponied up for public art, they might have put their spare cash into the latest coquillage bracelet or Galápagos expedition featured in the margins of the New Yorker. Besides, think of it from a philanthropist’s point of view: Donate money to a social program and it basically disappears, right? No matter how much you give, the poor people are still around, as Jesus himself observed. But if you contribute to a sculpture, at least you can go see what your money bought.

My wife merely sneers, classing me with the affluent and ignorant, which is manifestly unjust, at least on the first count.

Our arguments will get more pointed, I’m sure, as homelessness rises again. Already three casualties of welfare reform are bedding down on benches in the little park across from our house. Neighborhood dogs sometimes pee on them, and they in turn occasionally pee on the park’s dignified bronze sculpture of a fawn, wreaking havoc with the patina. A block away, at the corner of an apartment building inhabited by tiny white-haired ladies with tinier white-haired poodles, another fellow sleeps on a sidewalk steam vent. Though he has become a regular there, the poodles and their owners tend to suffer cardiac difficulties whenever they encounter him.

It’s a problem that calls for creative thinking. And creativity, I believe, often involves the joining of familiar elements in unfamiliar ways. Hence I’m going to take the unfamiliar position of admitting that my wife may be right—there can be a direct connection between the homeless and public art. The homeless, in fact, can become public art.

It’s a simple but grand idea. At the basic level, and for little expense, we could supply the citizens who live on our sidewalks with artistic clothing rather than their traditional scummy rags. As an example, for the Republican National Convention to be held in Philadelphia in the summer of 2000, I’m proposing that the city outfit the mobile homeless with shirts bearing the American flag on the front and a large, smiling elephant’s face on the back. (No, not an elephant’s posterior, as some wags may suggest.) As they shuffle around Center City on their usual rounds, our Homeless Folk will automatically proclaim our municipal patriotism as well as our appreciation for the lavish outlays of GOP conventioneers.

As for the immobile poor, who already tend to resemble outdoor sculptures, we could decorate them with small flags or pennants, red-white-and-blue booties, streamers, etc. Installation artists could construct multiperson arrangements at strategic sites near the convention center.

In the long run, as this idea takes hold, seasonal ornamentation would be appropriate. The Homeless Folk could wear Pilgrim hats for Thanksgiving, red bows for Valentine’s Day, shamrocks for St. Patrick’s. Or they could be adapted to each city’s unique history and character. Our city has approximately 287 statues of Ben Franklin, so why not 287 walking, talking replicas in period costume? And these people are far more trainable than the cynics believe. Surely many of them could be taught to ask for change in an eighteenth-century accent.

The aesthetic potential is enormous. As for the Homeless Folk themselves, the benefits are equally obvious. Nicer clothes, for one thing. Public respect instead of denigration. A chance to feel they have a true role in civic culture.

The best part of the plan is the ease of its funding. Not a coin need come from public coffers. The same philanthropists and institutions that donate to a city’s conventional artistic endeavors—the ones whose names appear on bronze plaques in museums and theaters—can be engaged as sponsors. They will flock to the program because of its immediate, visible results—they’ll be able to see with their own eyes the benefits of their contributions on street corners and grates throughout their city.

I invite all Americans to begin such a program in their own communities. In this proudly diversified nation there is no reason for Homeless Folk to remain a despised minority when they could offer so much to our civic ambience.

A Very Tender Topic

October 5, 2012

Nobody HomeHaving ignored the political conventions this year, I felt a tiny obligation to subject my ears to the first presidential debate. To build motivation, I set up a project: jot down phrases from the candidates and use them to make a sort of “found” poem, like a sculpture of found objects. Of course I’m not a poet, but incompetence never stopped any writer worth his pint of lager.

As I arranged the phrases yesterday, drawing more or less equally from Obama and Romney, a couple of things surprised me. Almost by chance, the poem came out with each stanza one line longer than the previous—kind of like the way politicians grow windier as they ramble on. (Is there a name for that poetic structure?) More important, some nonsensical sense seemed to emerge from the jabberwocky, and maybe—dare I say it?—an element of hope.

I’m curious to know what anyone else makes of it. Here it is:

A Very Tender Topic

A very tender topic, it’s on the brink of collapse,
and the reason is, is because
there’s a reason that indicates the degree
to which there may not be as much of
a focus on the fact that the path
we’re on has been unsuccessful.

See, there is no better way of dealing with
a fight we needed to have
and this is an example of where
those people who are less fortunate
can make a difference because
to promote and protect those principles
occasionally you gotta say no.

The proof of that is that
you can look at the record,
people are really hurting today,
and what ends up happening
is some people end up not,
and if the determination of the American people
has not displayed that willingness to say no,
that’s how we’re gonna wind down.

The question here tonight is not
where we’ve been but where we’re going.
So let’s get all the doctors together at once,
because we’ve seen progress even when
we were fighting about whether or not
to create frameworks where
we care for those that have difficulties,
at a time when it’s vitally important
to pursue their dreams.

Math, common sense, and our history,
we all know that that doesn’t get the job done.
What’s happening is, America
may not be the place to clear up
the record, where everybody’s playing
by the same rules. Let’s grade them,
I propose we grade the creativity and innovation
that exists in the American people, picking
winners and losers, the vitality we can
step in and see, a whole different way of life.

Thank you for tuning in, I have no idea
what you’re talking about, but there’s
still a problem as Abraham Lincoln
understood, endowed by our Creator.
Let me give you an example: Gas in the U.S.
is up under any circumstances, the biggest kiss
that’s been given to a baby out of work
since May. Can you help us? At the mercy
of your policies, it’s simply not moral—
the course of America, the great experience,
the burden paid, the bottom line.

Presenting the GCRS

November 11, 2010

Room sign in a motel near several elite colleges

As a break from the usual literary meanders, this post offers a more practical message.

It’s the time of year when American high school students begin to think seriously, or evasively, about colleges, anticipating and dreading their escape from parents, wondering whether to head east, west, or straight into mind-altering substances. Parents, too, debate how best to quit themselves of their offspring without incurring uncomfortable levels of debt or guilt.

To aid everyone concerned in this search for liberation, I humbly offer the Gridley College Rating System (GCRS), which is based not on esoteric criteria like faculty eminence or course requirements but on commonsense, easily observable characteristics that can be quantified on a single college tour. After trying it myself, I can testify that it works just as well as college guides and get-acquainted sessions.

For each of the following ten items, simply choose an appropriate score from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). Then add the numbers to produce the total rating. Scores preceded by a plus sign are treated as positive numbers; those preceded by a minus sign are negative. A brief rationale follows each item.

1. Ability of tour guides to walk rapidly backwards, talk continuously, point in several directions at once, and answer three simultaneous questions without falling down stairs.


(Because tour guides are usually students themselves, a high score on this item indicates that the college provides good training in multitasking, which will eventually allow graduates to spend six hours a day playing online games without impairing their productivity.)

2. Number of busts of dead white men visible on campus.


(Statues commemorating eminent white men, especially ones you don’t recognize, are a key to the college’s connection to the Old Boy Network, ever more critical in today’s economy. Without such connections, a graduate may need to do real work for a living.)

3. Number of busts of live white men visible on campus.


(Those old men with sagging chests are probably tenured professors, and their lack of physical conditioning suggests that they place their emphasis elsewhere—on academics, for example, a painful thought.)

4. Comfort of the chairs in the waiting room of the Admissions Office.


(Pleasant, upholstered chairs are designed to soothe visitors’ posteriors so that their wallets slide more easily from their pockets. Beware of hidden fees.)

5. Prevalence of red brick in the college buildings.


(Red brick is solid. Strong. Traditional. Unimaginative. Exactly the qualities a modern graduate needs.)

6. Number of working light bulbs in the desk lamps of the dormitory rooms.


(If you’re allowed to visit dorm rooms, they will most likely be unoccupied, and if the most recent residents didn’t discover that they should abscond with everything removable, they didn’t learn much, did they?)

7. Quality of the college lawns.


(Lawns as perfectly manicured as the greens of a private golf course are another clue to entrée into the Old Boy Network. However, you must reduce the college’s score on this item if you see anyone WORKING on the lawns. The immigrant labor should remain invisible.)

8. Number of books visible on the first floor of the college’s main library.


(BOOKS??? Instead of computers???)

9. Number of coffee shops within two blocks of campus.


(This item needs little explanation, but I’ll recount my niece’s reaction on a college tour with her parents. Asleep in the back seat, she woke up as the car pulled into a charming little town that housed an elite private college. After a three-second glance around, she said, “Forget it. I’m not getting out of the car here. There’s no Starbucks.”)

10. Number of disheveled thirty- and forty-somethings rushing through the parking lots or stumbling along the paths.


(These are the adjunct faculty members who teach most of the courses. Harried and exhausted, they rush from one campus to another in their eight-year-old Honda wagons to eke out a living from institutions that deny them full-time jobs and adequate salaries. Nearly all colleges employ such labor, but the good ones know how to hide the servant class. Compare #7 above.)

EVALUATING YOUR SURVEY: As mathematically inclined readers will already have noticed, a perfect score on the survey is +25 on the positive items and –5 on the negative ones, for a total of +20. The closer an institution approaches to 20, the better it reflects the ideal American collegiate experience. A typical U.S. college earns a score of absolute zero.