On Minority Rule

Well now that the covid pandemic seems to be subsiding in places where the population has sought and received vaccination, it seems we are getting back to normal in parts ofAmerica.  We are experiencing mass murder on a regular basis.

After Atlanta, Boulder, southern California and Indianapolis three were killed just last night in a bar in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  Biden has had to lower the flag 3 times in his first 100 days.  And it ain’t over yet.  These episodes of mass murder are interspersed with unending street violence in a country steeped with guns.

The frustrating thing is that a significant majority of Americans know what has to be done and are prepared to go along with it.  Polling conducted the day after Indianapolis indicates 2 out of 3 Americans want stricter gun control.  Eighty four percent of Americans want background checks for gun buyers.  Forty thousand Americans die from gun violence each year and the populance wants Congress to do something about it.

“But Republicans barely bother to offer more than perfunctory arguments against gun control anymore. They know they don’t need to, because no matter what happens at the ballot box, no matter how many Americans reject them and their views, they are the ones who will control the country, especially on matters such as gun control “by which predominantly white conservatives gain more and more power, even as they represent fewer Americans.

It begins with voter suppression in urban areas and gerrymandering (it has been called electoral welfare) which makes it easier for Republicans to win.  Then antidemocratic features of the American system that have always existed but never benefited one party over the other in any systematic way help those same candidates take control of institutions such as the White House and the Senate, despite winning fewer votes and representing fewer people than their opponents.

“Once in control of these institutions, these newly elected officials use them to entrench their power beyond the reach of voters. If they are eventually voted out of power, they retain a veto over the agenda of the majority, which they use to block change and feed the conservative case that the government is “broken.” thus hastening  their return to power—along the very path they greased with voter suppression.”

“Right now  Democrats were able to marshal enough forces to overcome structural barriers to majority rule to win technical control of the government. But Democratic helplessness to pass gun control legislation is a cold reminder that Republicans, despite being walloped at the ballot box, retain most of the power in this country.

Yes, President Joe Biden was able to get an important coronavirus relief package passed through Congress on a party-line vote. But on the vast majority of legislative priorities for Democrats — gun control, climate change, voting rights, health care — Republicans have the final word, due to the filibuster.

That word is consistently “nope,” with a side dose of “f*ck you” to the majority of Americans who voted against the GOP. And with Republican-controlled state legislatures rapidly introducing a bunch of bills to disenfranchise voters further, it may very well be that we’re entering a new era when Democrats can’t even technically win elections, despite having the majority support among Americans.

We can’t keep letting Republicans win even when the lose.  Hilary Clinton, despite her flaws won 3 million more votes than Donald Trump.  Joe Bidenv got more than double that number but you know, they didn’t lose – the eection was stolen.  This is not an idea emanating from crackpots; these guys are sitting in Congress and voted to nullify the election because they lost!

The situation is only getting worse, as Republicans dig deeper into the idea they have an absolute right to rule, no matter what the voters say about it.

Democrats could strip the minority party of their nearly-absolute veto power but abolishing — or at least reforming — the filibuster, a pointless anachronism in the Senate that was mainly used in the past to defend white supremacy. The Republicans had no qualms about the “nuclear option” when it stood in their way of getting 3 Supreme Court Justices approved.

Without Republicans being able to stop any bill before it even got to debate on the Senate floor, Democrats could strengthen gun control, improve health care, fight climate change, and, perhaps most importantly, bar state legislatures from passing laws to deny Americans the legal right to vote.

Unfortunately, this common sense move is being blocked by two Democratic senators who are weighed down by an ignorance that is only surpassed by the size of their egos: Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Both of these senators keep foolishly insisting that filibuster is somehow a tool encouraging bipartisan engagement and debate, even though the reality is that it’s being used by Republicans to unilaterally end all Senate debate before it even happens.

Whatever the real motivations of these two, their actions are stunningly immoral.

And so we keep pushing that rock labeled “Democratic Victory” up an ever steepening hill only to see it  tumble to the ground marked “Nothing Done”  All the hard work to get out the vote is being wasted because a couple of scatterbrained Democratic senators can’t bring themselves to admit they are playing handmaiden to Republican plots to destroy the tattered remains of our democracy. Americans keep voting and voting and voting and it makes little difference.

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Thinking of Michael on his Birthday

Michael 1975 – 1985

Thinking of Michael today on what might have been his 46th birthday.

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these;  It might have been.”

She sits beneath a massive oak
in the Garden of Noble Women
Garden of the Promise
for those who have borne the burden
yet never heard the word.

He never walked
or ever fed himself
He never saw the light
or heard a sound.
He never said the Word.

And when he died she buried him amidst her tears
in the Lands of the Lord Calvert
on the road to Padonia.
Now she sits in the quiet of a Summer’s day
waiting for the Promise to be fulfilled.

On the horizon
a kite and a little boy
running o’er the meadow
sun lit mop top hair
dancing in the breeze

part running, part falling toward her
little fingers of his left hand
leading the way
reaching for her
running like little boys run flying a kite.

And as she rose
joyfully
on young legs
she moved toward him and saw the face of God
the same face, now perfect in His image.

And from his laughing face she heard the Word
the Word God promised
to those who bore the burden
yet never heard the Word.

“Mommy! Mommy!!”

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On “Packing the Court”

Back in last October, just a month before the election the Covid virus  was raging and   Congress  was unable to agree on a relief package for the millions of unemployed, those soon to be evicted from their homes, the airline industry etc. but the Senate was full speed ahead to confirm another Theo-fascist to the Supreme Court,  Since Supreme Court Justices are appointed for life, her confirmation will cement minority rule in this nation for decades to come.

The Republican controlled Senate, led by the odious Mitch McConnel pushed a Supreme Court Justice through just 2 weeks before Trump’s defeat.  This is the same GOP that refused a hearing for a year to an Obama nominee, arguing that “the next President should pick the nominee.”

Everything she supported is opposed by the majority of the citizens of this nation.  Makes no difference.  The Court has been thoroughly politicized.  Once I believed, and rightly so, that the Court’s first responsibility was to protect the individual and a minority from the tyranny of the majority.  In the space of a decade the Court has changed to where it now imposes the tyranny of a minority.

The table has been turned since 2010  as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission gave corporations the right to spend unlimited amounts in elections – as if corporations were people.  And Shelby County v. Holder gave states the right to change election laws without the Federal government’s approval.  Both were 5 – 4 decisions.

And let us not forget Bush v. Gore but let us recall previous Senate votes on nominees.

Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed by Reagan and got 99 votes. Antonim Scalia, also a Reagan appointee was confirmed 98 – 0.  Anthony M. Kennedy got 97 votes.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg got 96.  Stephen Breyer got 87 votes.  There was a clear bi-partisanship for highly qualified nominees.

As the Court as become politicized the yea votes have fallen – Clarence Thomas was confirmed 52-48.   Sam Alito only 58 while Neil Gorsuch got only 52 votes.

And Brett Kavanaugh was “confirmed” with only 50 votes.  Amy Coney-Barret got 52.

The left wing of the Democratic Party has begun mentioning the possibility of adding judges to the Court – “packing the Court” as the right characterizes it.  The right also wants you to believe that this is a completely revolutionary idea.

It is not.  It was been considered at least twice before; once by Theodore Roosevelt and once by FDR.  In both instances the Court was striking down legislation passed by Congress and supported by the vast majority of Americans.

With lifetime appointments, it’s not unusual for Supreme Court justices to serve well past the average U.S. retirement age of 63. (Ruth Bader Ginsberg died at age 87 while still serving on the court and Antonin Scalia died at age 79 while still a Supreme Court justice.)

In the late 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to put restrictions on the court when it came to age. Largely seen as a political ploy to change the court for favorable rulings on New Deal legislation, the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937, commonly referred to as the “court-packing plan,” was Roosevelt’s attempt to appoint additional justices to the Supreme Court for every justice older than 70 years, 6 months, who had served 10 years or more and refused to retire..

“We were in the midst of the worst economic crisis in our history.  Roosevelt’s response to this economic crisis was to engage in a series of programs designed to manage a capitalist system in such a way as to make it work for the average American. And because he wasn’t particularly ideological, he was willing to try all kinds of things.”

Over the course of the Depression, Roosevelt was pushing through legislation and, beginning in May 1935, the Supreme Court began to strike down a number of the New Deal laws. “Over the next 13 months, the court struck down more pieces of legislation than at any other time in U.S. history.  Roosevelt’s first New Deal program—in particular, its centerpiece, the National Recovery Administration, along with parts of the Agricultural Adjustment Act—had been struck down by unanimous and near-unanimous votes.

And so FDR began to think of adding justices to the Court.  His idea met with instant opposition.  When he won the election of 1936 in a landslide, Roosevelt decided to float the plan.

The plan was never voted on in Congress but it roused the Court.  The Supreme Court justices went public in their opposition to it.  “The chief justice (Charles Evans Hughes) testified before Congress that the Court was up to date in its work, countering Roosevelt’s stated purpose that the old justices needed help with their caseload.”

But the Court heard the music.  Several justices switched sides  allowing much of Roosevelt’s future legislation, including Social Security to be upheld when challenged.

When I was a kid grandparents lived with their children and their grandchildren. One of the kids took in their mom and pop while the rest of the kids were expected to kick into the pot to provide for their support.

That’s the way it was before Social Security.

Folks were expected to work until they died which usually wasn’t long. The average life expectancy for a male in the 1920s was 49 years. If you lived longer there was no expected retirement age. You worked until you could no longer work or until you could no longer find work.

Then you were expected to live on your savings. Home ownership at the time was below 20% in the lower working class and the average wage adjusted for inflation in today’s dollars was around $13,000.  Usually old folks didn’t have sufficient resources to live on.

So you went to your children if you had any. It was expected. Grandma usually got one of the children’s bedrooms.  Lacking family to fall back on old folks relied on charity, churches or became “wards” of the county poor house.

The Great Depression effectively put an end to living with your kids – your kids were now unemployed too and the elderly especially were in shocking economic free fall.

FDR desperate to make jobs and faced with massive unemployment came up with 2 ideas.  Cut the workday from 8 hours to 6 or begin sending older folks money to get them out of the job market and shrink the labor force.  He decided on the latter but insisted that workers pay for the program, to be known as Social Security.

The right immediately declared that this was socialism and an impingement on individual freedom and therefore unconstitutional. After all, why should I give you my money so that you can give it back to me when I am old?  I can take care of myself thankyou!

Sounds familiar don’t it?

With a Supreme Court likely to strike it down, FDR turned up the heat with his plan to add justices.  Congress DOES have the right to change the composition of the Court.  The Court is in fact the most undemocratic institution of the U.S government.  Its members are appointed, not elected.  They are appointed for life.  And their word is law.  Kind of like 9 Kings and Queens.

The Court felt the heat and let the Social Security Act stand though it was challenged twice.

Amy Coney-Barrett was confirmed to the Court.  She was sent on a mission by Donald Trump to strike down the Affordable Care Act which would cause some 20 million to lose their health benefits.  There was no plan to replace it coming from Congress or the White House.  She has also characterized abortion as barbaric.

With the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the nomination of a polar opposite replacement, only one response makes any sense: Expand the Supreme Court. The only real question is by how much. There are other responses that can do some good — perhaps even more good. But without court expansion, the existing court can, and almost certainly will, strike them down.

Yes, some call it an extreme step. But there’s a more extreme step: Simply ignore the court’s decisions — as some Republicans argued in the 1850s, in response to the Dred Scott decision. More to the point, this is an extreme situation that demands extreme responses. As Boston College law professor Kent Greenfield tweeted on Sept. 21:

15 of the last 19 appointments were made by GOP Presidents. (16/20 when Trump got another.)

The last year a majority of the justices were Dem appointees: 1969. Meanwhile, the GOP won the popular vote in the presidential election only once in 30 years (2004).

In order to save our democracy it may be necessary to expand the Court.

It’s also been more than 20 years since Republicans represented a majority of voters in the Senate, making the condition of minority rule even more extreme. It’s also self-reinforcing.

American political elites have generally supported the strong form of judicial review that emerged in the late 19th century because the Supreme Court generally tracked with the constitutional views of the dominant political coalition. A Supreme Court representing an entrenched, unpopular minority faction that refuses to allow the popular majorities from the other party to effectively govern would be neither democratically legitimate nor politically stable.

Reform the Court.  Abandon the Electoral College.

Comments are welcome.

🙂

 

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American Dreams

Fire escapes on brownstone New York City

How hard to be poor and a stranger
in the promised land where poverty humiliates
those who pride themselves
on being able to cope.

“Don’t you “little girl” me!
I’ve been carrying this family
on my back
for a whole year!”.

Step over the homeless vet child;
pass the line at the free clinic, the junkies riding horse
the cops, the dealer, the blond crack whore
the schizo-cynic screamin on the corner

It will be a hot Summer up on tar beach
on the fire escape at night
in your underwear
your back against the brown brick

Sleeping under the stars
listening to the lullaby
of a far away siren
still softly singing that American dream.

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On Meeting Hector – Breaker of Horses – From the Archives – 2016

achilles_rage_by_kimag3500

I was a nerd as a child.  A reader and a bit of a loner, I spent time in a small public library on Fort Hamilton Parkway in Brooklyn, walking there or riding my bike the half mile or so from my house.

Most of the guys in the neighborhood were more into sports than I and, while we got along, I can’t say that I was super close with any of them.  I wouldn’t have a BFF until we moved out of our apartment and into our tiny house in Coney Island.  I was 14 when we moved.

During my elementary school years I developed other interests which lead to my trips to the library.  Astronomy was a favorite reading subject and believe it or not, politics.  These were the years of Joseph McCarthy and. with all the talk about “communism”and “socialism” I began reading what I could find on the subject.

I had a civics class at school in the 7th grade; one of the issues to write about was “Should communists be allowed to run in our elections?”  One couldn’t answer that unless one knew what communism was and had a basic knowledge of the U.S. Constitution.

My father told me to read these books at the library and not check them out.  Three  of my four grandparents were not citizens.  And his mother, my grandmother, was a bit of a  “red”.

As for my interest in astronomy, the nuns in my religious class quickly told me it was all nonsense; God created the world in 7  days.  I had my doubts.

Miss Clara was the librarian back then; she noticed my interests and allowed me to read and check out books from the adult section which may or may not have been against the rules.  She turned me on to history, reading about the second world war, the holocaust (although I don’t think it was called that back then) and Greek and Roman history.

Taking note of the kid’s interests Miss Clara recommended a book – a kid’s “Iliad.”

Of course it wasn’t the epic poem in Homeric Greek, nor was it even in poetry form; it was a narrative story of the Trojan War.

And it was a ten year old dreamer’s introduction to one of the two foundation texts of Western civilization – the other, in my opinion being the Bible.  The Iliad stands at the beginning of one tradition— the written tradition—it also comes at the end of an entirely different tradition. One way of thinking about Homer’s Iliad is as a survivor of a form of purely oral poetry passed down from generation to generation without ever being written down.

It was Miss Clara who introduced the boy to Achilles, Paris, Helen, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Priam, Patroclus , Hecuba, Andromache, Cassandra, Diomedes, Odysseus, the Gods, the priests and priestesses, the prophecies and of course Hector, Prince Royal of Troy.

I would learn later that Troy was a real place and I would later read an English version of Homer’s epic, now 2,500 years old and telling an oral  tale much older than that.

And over the years I would continue to learn from the Iliad for the Iliad is the basis of—and the model for—every kind of war narrative, action movie, superhero comic, and adventure saga that has come after it.   It is ground zero.

“Not only does the Iliad put the act into action, but it puts the philosophy in there, too. This isn’t just a reductive Good Guys Vs. Bad Guys bit of disposable nothing. Instead, what’s behind all that fighting is a whole lot of thinking about what the fighting means.

For instance, why fight at all? Why not just sit around and wait for the war to end or for death or whatever else is coming down the pike? Or for another example, just how much is one man’s honor worth? Worth upsetting a king’s plans? Yeah, probably. Leading to the deaths of a lot of others? Um… maybe not.”

Achilles is close to the Gods but cannot control his rage when his pride is injured; injured pride is a stain on his “honor”.  This attribute so poisons him that he abandons his comrades and even prays that the Trojans will slaughter them, all because he has been slighted at the hands of his commander Agamemnon, who is also prideful as well as stubborn.   Achilles, though protected by the gods, has a physical weakness as well.  All mortal men do.

Paris prefers to be the lover rather than the fighter with no qualms about running off with another man’s wife.  It was Paris who gave the golden apple inscribed “For the most beautiful” to the Goddess Aphrodite after she promised him the most beautiful girl in the world, angering Athena and Hera, the other two contestants for the apple,  who vowed to destroy Troy.   Paris is fearful of fighting Helen’s husband Menelaus in hand to hand combat.

Hector is Troy’s greatest warrior. wrecking havoc on the Greeks during Achilles absence from the field.  He is a loving husband and father, even treating his brother Paris with forgiveness and indulgence, despite the man’s lack of spirit and preference for lovemaking over military duty. Hector never turns violent with him, merely aiming frustrated words at his cowardly brother. Moreover, although Hector loves his family, he never loses sight of his responsibility to Troy.   His duty to the nation.

Hector too has faults, mutilating the body of Patroclus and stripping off his armor, the armor of Achilles.   He runs from Achilles at first and briefly entertains the delusional hope of negotiating his way out of a duel. However, in the end he stands up to the mighty warrior, even when he realizes that the gods have abandoned him. His refusal to flee even in the face of vastly superior forces makes him the most tragic figure in the poem.

The Iliad reveals the strengths, weaknesses and foibles of men and gods and asks the questions:  What is honor and how much is it worth?  Why fight at all?  Who is wise and who is stubborn?  Who is brave and does bravery make up for other character flaws?  Who appears cowardly but wants only to live, love and die in his own bed?    How much do you owe to your king, your state, your country?

The Iliad recognizes, and repeatedly reminds its readers, that the creations of mortals have a mortality of their own. The glory of men does not live on after them in their buildings and institutions.

Hector’s tender words with Andromache and the debates of the gods, constantly remind the reader that Troy’s lofty ramparts will fall.  If mortals’ physical bodies and material creations cannot survive them, perhaps their words and deeds can. Certainly the existence of Homer’s poem would attest to this notion.

If Priam and Achilles can sit together and make their peace over the body of Hector, who among us cannot?  How petty are the arguments of men in the face of mortality?

Too bad the young no longer read the Iliad.

Thank you Miss Clara.

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Cats

“Cats” by Pam T. in chalk and magic marker

🙂

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A Day at the Races – A Repost

Originally posted a decade ago on a curated site, now long gone

chariot-race

The young Emperor of the East at Constantinople was preparing to flee the city, effectively abdicating his throne. The mobs had been outside the palace complex for five days, screaming for blood. Justinian was at a loss. The palace guard was having difficulty holding back the rioters. Vast areas of the city had been put to the torch, including the great church Hagia Sofia.

Justinian ordered a ship prepared to take him across the Bosphorus into exile. He had ruled for only four years.

And to think this all started at the chariot races.

Justinian

Roman citizens were mad about chariot racing. Gladiatorial combat had faded with the coming of Christianity to the empire, and chariot racing took its place. The largest racetrack in the world, the Hippodrome, was here in the capital city. Four-horse chariot racing was organized into teams – the Reds, Whites, Greens and Blues. Every citizen worthy of his salt was a fan of one team or the other.

In Constantinople, only two teams had any following – the Blues and the Greens. Justinian himself was a rabid fan of the Blues. Fans would wear the team colors and sit in the fan section at the Hippodrome. During the reign of the Emperors there was no such thing as a political party. No outlet for grievances among the population. Various aristocratic families pushing their own agendas found they could expand their influence by publicly supporting one of the teams.

If Brutus the Wealthy was a supporter of the Red, the Reds began to support Brutus the Wealthy. After all, he was one of them.

The fans and leadership began to meld into associations combining aspects of sports, street gangs and political parties, taking positions on issues of the day. The fans could be rallied in support of various agendas and would shout slogans at the Emperor between races. It reached the point where chariot race fans became difficult to control in the stadium and the guards had to rely on the fans themselves to police the crowd. Hooliganism and violence would break our occasionally between factions as the fans left the stadium; a killing or two was not uncommon.

After a series of chariot races several months earlier, a number of people were killed in clashes between the Blues and the Greens. Several fans from each group were arrested and hanged, but two escaped custody—one Blue and one Green—and sought asylum in a church. Thousands of fans from each group surrounded the church to protect their man from the Imperial Guard.

Justinian grew worried. He postponed the hanging of the two languishing in the church, but refused to pardon them. He decided to give the people a diversion – more chariot races on January 13, 532 at the Hippodrome.

The Hippodrome was next to the palace complex and thus Justinian could watch from the safety of his box in the palace while presiding over the races. From the start the crowd was raucous, more drunk than usual, hurling insults at Justinian. By the end of the day the partisan chants had changed from “Blue” or “Green” to a unified “Nika!” meaning something akin to “Go and conquer!” The crowds began to assault the palace. A number of Senators saw the rioting as an opportunity to overthrow Justinian, as they were opposed to his new taxes and lack of support for the nobility.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

In front of the crowd of Blues and Greens they declared a new emperor, Hypatius, nephew of the former Emperor Anastasius I.

Justinian was in despair and ready to flee. He sent for his wife, Theodora, to tell her to prepare to leave the city.

Theodora watching the races from the Imperial box in the palace

Theodora had been an actress and dancer and part-time courtesan; now she was Empress of the Empire. She was smart, shrewd and tough as nails. Justinian had fallen madly in love with her. Theodora was, for all practical purposes, co-ruler.

Justinian was in the midst of a meeting of his Council when she arrived with Belisarius, a loyal General of the army and Narsus, a popular palace eunuch and keeper of the treasury. Both Belisarius and Narsus stood out of range, taking care not to hear the words between the Justinian and his wife.

“You sent for me, Caesar?” Theodora said.

“I’m preparing a ship to take us across the water to safety. We will leave as soon as you are ready.”

Theodora quietly answered her husband and his Council: ”I am not leaving.”

Justinian look at her incredulously. “We must leave! Otherwise we will both be dead in a matter of hours!”

Theodora’s voice firmed. She spoke to Council and the emperor with steely resolve.

“Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as Empress! Royal purple makes a fine burial shroud; I will die here rather than live hiding in exile!”

Justinian threw up his hands in desperation, wondering what to do next.

Narsus

Theodora called to Belisarius and Narsus, and told her husband; “We have devised a plan to put down the rebellion.”

The general and the eunuch stood by sheepishly, somewhat embarrassed for the emperor as Theodora explained the plan to her husband.

“Do you think it will work?” He asked thoughtfully.

Theodora smiled. “I am of the people. I know it will work!”

The Hippodrome was filled with thousands of fans of the Blues and Greens, sitting in their respective sections. The Greens intended to crown the new emperor, Hypatius, this day.

Belisarius ordered the army to the ready, while Narsus, carrying a box of gold coins from the treasury entered the racetrack, unarmed. Hundreds had been killed, their bodies still lying about the field.

Narsus was well known and well loved by everyone. He came to the races often, mingling with the crowd rather than sitting with Senators or in the imperial box. He was a trusted and fair administrator.

Narus ignored the Greens and approached the Blues in their section. He began to speak, quieting down the crowd.

“Have you forgotten that the Emperor is a Blue? Has always been a Blue? That he is one of you? Have you not seen him in the colors?” he asked. “Hypatius is a Green! Do you want your new Emperor to be a Green?”

Narsus took one of the golden coins from the box and held it up for all the Blues to see; on it the likeness of Emperor.

“If Caesar does not survive this day he wants you to remember him as a Blue!”

And then he began giving out gold coins to the Blues with extra vigorish going the the leaders of the Blue mob. Cheering began as Narsus finished speaking; as Hypatius was being crowned, the Blues stormed out of the Hippodrome.

The Greens were stunned. They had thought that the Blues were with them.

Belisarius

Justinian’s general Belisarius then moved on the Hippodrome and slaughtered over 30,000 Greens. Hypatius was executed and the Senators supporting him were banished for life. Theodora’s words, “Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss,” rang in Justinian’s ears as he ordered the death of Hypatius. Theodora insisted on it, standing at his side as he did so.

Justinian rebuilt the great city, including Hagia Sofia, which became the largest church in the world until the building of St. Peter’s a thousand years later. He went on to re-conquer much of the western territories of the Roman Empire lost to the barbarians; Belisarius swept the hated Vandals from North Africa, extending Justinian’s rule all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Narsus, although a eunuch, became a great general in his own right, retaking Italy, Sicily and Dalmatia from the Goths. He was the first Roman general to enter Rome in half a century.

Theodora became the greatest empress of Byzantium. She actively participated in Justinian’s legal and spiritual reforms, and her involvement in the increase of the rights of women was substantial. She had laws passed that prohibited forced prostitution and closed brothels. She created a convent on the Asian side of the Dardanelles called the Metanoia (Repentance), where the ex-prostitutes could support themselves. She also expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, instituted the death penalty for rape, forbade exposure of unwanted infants, gave mothers some guardianship rights over their children, and forbade the killing of a wife who committed adultery. The contemporary historian Procopius wrote that she was naturally inclined to assist women, especially those in misfortune. Today she is a saint in the Orthodox Church.

Brandenburger Tor with Quadriga in Berlin at sunset

The Quadringa, the four great copper horses representing Roman chariot racing which stood over the Hippodrome, can now be seen on the facade of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice – booty from the Crusader sacking of the city in 1204. A copy of the Quadringa stands atop the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and Wellington’s Arch in London. The pylons of the Hippodrome still stand in Istanbul.

And the next time you get a beer spilled on you at the stadium, remember the Greens!

One of the two pylons of the Hippodrome standing in Istanbul

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Needles

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Those of you who have spent time in Rome or in many other cities in the world have seen them.

Needles.

Egyptian obelisks.  Those four sided monuments topped by a pyramid shaped point.  The Washington Monument is an American shaped copy though one cannot enter the genuine article.

Once they all stood in ancient Egypt, monuments to the greatness of  the Pharaoh who created them and the glory of his reign.  The ancient Egyptians made a number of obelisks which were mostly placed in pairs at the entrances to temples.

Of the 28 existing obelisks standing today, only 6 are in Egypt.  The rest are located in London, Paris,  Istanbul, New York and Rome.  Why each of these treasures stands where it is today is literally a biography of each.

After standing in Egypt for a thousand years plus (the oldest surviving obelisk is over 4,000 years old) there came a turn when the Emperor Augustus began moving them out of Egypt commencing with his defeat of Antony and Cleopatra.

All of the obelisks however, no matter where they now stand or how they got there have in common that they all once stood in the ancient sands of Egypt.

It is in Rome’s piazzas and streets where 13 obelisks of which 8 are Egyptian stand today, brought home by the emperors.  The Romans used special heavy cargo carriers called obelisk ships to transport the monuments down the Nile to Alexandria and from there across the Mediterranean to Rome. On site, large Roman cranes were employed to erect the monoliths.

The tallest, created by the Pharaohs Tutmoses III and IV,  stands in front of the Lateran Palace and the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano.  It was originally brought to Alexandria from the Temple of Amun in Karnak and then to Rome in A.D 357 by Emperor Constantius II and was erected on the spina of the Circus Maximus.   Found in three pieces in 1587 it was re-erected where it stands today by Pope Sixtus V.  The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius was moved to Capitoline Hill to make room for it.

In the Piazza del Popolo stands a monument of Seti I, brought to Rome by Augustus in B.C 10 which also stood in the Circus Maximus and was found in two pieces next to the Lateran obelisk.  It too was re-erected by Pope Sixtus V where it stands today.

An obelisk from the Temple of Ra at Heliopolis, built by Ramses II stands in front of the Pantheon.  It was found buried in 1373 and simply re-buried.  Uncovered again it was re-erected by Pope Clement Xl in 1711 where it stands.  There s another behind the Pantheon brought to Rome by Diocletian.

The obelisk most seen however has got to be the one in front of St, Peters Basilica in the Vatican.  In virtually every photo of the square and the dome there stands an ancient Egyptian obelisk – a great pagan symbol directly in front of the center of the Roman Catholic world.  It is the only obelisk in Rome that has remained standing through the ages, never having toppled once.  It is estimated to be some 4,000 years old.

Why is it there and what is the history behind the Vatican needle?

After Augustus triumph over Antony and Cleopatra it was raised in Alexandria around 30 B.C.  in the Julian Forum by the prefect Cornelius Gallus on Augustus’s orders as a monument to his family.

Sadly, little is known of its origins or which Pharaoh ordered its construction as it has no hieroglyphs on it that would record that information.  It was certainly quarried in Egypt and intended to be erected in Heliopolis when Octavian, now Augustus had it moved and erected in Alexandria as a monument to his victory over Antony.

On the other hand, church archives indicate the obelisk definitely comes from Heliopolis, Egypt, where it was built by the Pharaoh Mencares in 1835 BC in honor of the sun.

And there it stood in Alexandria until the Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus came to the imperial throne.  He would be known in history as the Emperor Caligula.

The third of Rome’s emperors, Caligula  achieved feats of waste and carnage during his four-year reign (A.D. 37-41) unmatched even by his infamous nephew Nero. The son of a great military leader, Germanicus, he escaped family intrigues to take the throne, but his personal and fiscal excesses led him to be the first Roman emperor to be assassinated.

This was the guy who built a palace for his horse with a marble stall; who wanted to name his horse to the Senate.  The guy who slept with his sister Drusilla and a multitude of wives of Senators and did so publicly.  Who declared himself a God and appeared publicly dressed as Jupiter.  Though he lived to be only 29 before he was dispatched, this was the guy we made a soft porn film about starring Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud and Malcolm McDowell.  Poor folks.

One of Caligula’s extravagances was his circus; the Circus Maximus wasn’t quite good enough for him.  He began to built his own on what was then Vatican Hill.  And his circus needed a nice pylon worthy of his circus.

And so Caligula thought of the great obelisk in Alexandria raised by Octavian Augustus to honor his victory over Antony and ordered it be brought to Rome to serve as the pylon in his new circus.

For, you see, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was the great-grandson of Marc Antony and perhaps this was his way of showing his ultimate triumph.

Prior to the civil war between Octavian and Antony, the former had given his sister Octavia as wife to Antony.  Antony fathered three children with her before abandoning her for Cleopatra.

Through the younger daughter Antonia Minor,  Antony would become ancestor to most of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the very family which as represented by Octavian Augustus that he had fought to defeat, including Caligula, Claudius and Nero.  Through the eldest daughter Antonia Major he would become ancestor to a long line of kings of Roman client states.  Through his daughter with Cleopatra, Antony would become ancestor to the royal family of Mauretania while his sole surviving son Julius would be ancestor to several famous Roman statesmen.

Gaius Caligula had the obelisk brought to Rome in 37 A.D.  Today it is approximately 85 feet high and weighs about 326 tons; historical records indicate it was once significantly larger.  It was originally erected in Caligula’s gardens which he had inherited from his mother and then moved to the spina of the circus that he started and was completed by Nero due to his untimely demise.  Nero called it Nero’s Circus.  Much of the circus is under the Basilica and square, the original spot for the obelisk is near the present day sacristy just south of the Basilica.

In 1586 Sixtus  V decided he wanted the obelisk, still standing since Caligula’s time, moved to the center of St. Peters Square.  Given the difficulty of moving it, several projects were considered until Sixtus V entrusted the job to his favorite architect, Domenico Fontana,  His plans met with the Pope’s approval and on April 30, 1586, transport was begun, after a solid foundation had been built to support the obelisk in the center of the square.

The operation, which is illustrated by several engravings, was carried out using hemp ropes and iron bars weighing 40,000 pounds, plus 900 men and 72 horses, and was completed on Sept. 10 of the same year.  Three hundred fifty six years later to the day, Toritto would be born into the world.  🙂

On top of the obelisk had been a golden urn which, it was rumored during the middle ages, contained the ashes of Julius Caesar.  It was taken down and opened.   Reportedly it contained only dust.  It was replaced with cross atop the obelisk today – said to contain a relic wooden remnant  of the “true cross.”

Sure it does.  I wonder if Caesar’s ashes were in that golden urn.

The inscriptions on the north and south sides of the base have texts written by Cardinal Silvio Antoniani as a memorial to the moving of the obelisk. The east and west sides have exorcist formulas.  Quite helpful when you need them.

It also functions as a sun dial, its shadow moving over signs of the zodiac in the paving of the Square.

Stand in its shadow with an espresso and a fine cigar and think that what you are seeing has been viewed by Egyptians at Heliopolis, Augustus, Caligula and every emperor and Pope of this city.

Truly Zen.

 

 

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Toritto and Religion

Regina Pacis in Brooklyn where I was an altar boy

Which group in America do you think is the most marginalized and under represented?  Blacks? Asians, Muslims, native Americans, LGBTQ, trans-gender?

Nope.

There is not one “out” member of Congress who will admit to being as atheist.  Not one openly ran as an atheist.  Yet some four percent of Americans call themselves atheists while another five percent define themselves as agnostic.

In Europe, 25% of Czechs are openly atheist. Meanwhile religion has had a string of victores lately at the Supreme Court – you know – you don’t have to do it if a “sincerely held” religious belief.  There are so many of these lately!

Those of you who consider me a socialist pinko commie radical may be of the opinion that I am not a religious man.  You would be right.

I was an altar boy of the Tridentine Mass as a kid and raised as a cultural Catholic.  My parents did not attend church but I received First Communion and Confirmation; I think they did it because my grandparents were still alive and it was expected.  On the other hand I don’t recall that they were church goers either.  Grandma was a red.

Italians always had a somewhat different view of Catholicism than the Irish; Many Italians viewed the church as a political institution.  The Papal States allowed the church to wield temporal power; many Italians lived everyday with the Pope as their ruler.

I received religious instruction in elementary school; although I attended public school we Catholics were dismissed at 2 PM on Wednesday afternoons and marched across the street to the Catholic school for two hours of catechism lessons.

I distinctly remember I had an astronomy picture book with me one day and a nun told me not to believe that nonsense; “God created the world”.  I got the message.

I’ve been to St. Peter’s In Rome twice; both times during Jubilee years.  One is considered lucky to have done it once in a lifetime – a Jubilee year usually comes around every 25 years.  St. Peters in Rome has a holy door (porta sancta in Latin). The door is normally sealed shut from the inside so that it cannot be opened. It is opened during Jubilee years, when pilgrims enter through the door to gain the plenary indulgence connected with the Jubilee.  I went through twice.  Google plenary indulgence if you have no idea what that is.

I have visited the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore and numerous other world famous mosques in Cairo and Dubai while spending three Ramadans in Muslim countries.

I’ve attended services at both the Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral.  I touched the Western Wall with Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem and visited the Church of the Nativity.  I was in Mumbai for Diwali and was on Elephanta Island in the Shiva Caves for Shivarati.  I walked in the largest Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka.

Yet I do not believe.  But I’m not in your face about it.  I simply live…..quietly and without religion.  I am not an in your face atheist.  I try to convince no one.  I try to live rationally – for I believe that this is all there is – this time; this moment.

I do not believe we were “created in the image of God” along with the rest of the universe notwithstanding that Mormons believe the Garden of Eden is in Missouri.  We are animals (as opposed to being plants) sharing most of our DNA with our dog or cat.

I do not believe the world is only five thousand years old or that dinosaur bones were somehow “planted” where they were found.  I do not believe that any religion is literally “true” notwithstanding that each of the major religions claims to be.  I do not believe in a “god” that needs to be obeyed, worshiped and adored – kind of like a king of ancient times.

I guess when I was a kid it seemed obvious to me that where you were born and what religion your parents practiced determined your own “beliefs”.  As an Italian there was a good chance I was going to be Catholic.  Had I been born in Saudi Arabia there is a really good chance I would have been a Muslim; if in India most likely a Hindu.  If my parents had been Jews, I would be Jewish.  Religion is culture; “truth” had nothing to do with it.  My parents were culturally Catholic but didn’t practice – maybe because my mother spent years in an orphanage run by nuns.

Does Catholicism have a greater claim on truth than any of the others?  And if I thought my religion “true”, why was it true and the others not?

As I got some scientific learning it dawned on me early on that each of the major religions had a “book”, each written by men thousands of years ago; men who had no idea why the sun rose in the morning.  The earliest civilizations gave explanations for those things they could not understand – it was the Gods that made the sun rise and the crops grow.

The Egyptians did it in a big way.  And the Egyptians were the first to live for the “after life”.

Monotheists look down on “pagans” – those who believed in gods and goddesses before being enlightened by the truth of “the word”.   Even the term “pagan” is derogatory – kind of like ignorant of the truth; unenlightened.

I happened to like the Greek gods and philosophy.  They make me smile.  They were just like us with all of our strengths and foibles.  And the Greeks never spoke of a heaven or paradise – only Hades; the underworld, which was just the place where we all wound up.  No judgement of how we lived our lives.  No hell fire and damnation.

And the Greek gods never stifled the search for knowledge and scientific truth.  Catholics did.  Ask Galileo.  Indeed the triumph of Christianity and its climb to temporal power through the Emperor Constantine probably stifled the search for knowledge for a thousand years.  Ideas like the earth revolving around the sun were heresy and were to be quashed.  Religion still paralyzes a good portion of the globe today.

Now I have not studied “theology”; because other than from a perspective of the history of religion I think it’s a waste of time – kind of like arguing over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin – which assumes of course the existence of angels.  Arguing with a learned theologian is pointless; they have faith.  I do not.

Is there something to take from religion?  Well yes.

I believe that Jesus was a great teacher worth emulating.  The world would be a much better place if we all acted like him.  That is enough for me.  Do I believe that he is literally the son of God and rose from the dead?  No.  No more than I believe that the Eucharist is the actual body and blood of Christ under the appearance of a wafer.

And finally we have religion because we all fear death.  All religions have a life after death – heaven, hell, paradise, reincarnation.  Death is not the end; what religion would teach that it was?

When I die I will not see my girl again, my sons, my mom and dad, my brother.  We will not meet on that beautiful shore; there is no beautiful shore any more than there is a Styx.   Best to love them while you are here.

Thirteen and a half billion years went by before the dawn of my consciousness; thirteen and a half billion years will go by just as quickly after the lights go out.

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45 How many are your deeds,
46 though hidden from sight.
47 O sole God without equal !
48 You made the Earth as You desired, You alone.
49 With people, cattle, and all creatures.
50 With everything upon Earth that walks on legs,
51 and all that is on high and flies with its wings.

You make all arms firm for the King,
87 every leg is on the move since You founded the Earth,
88 You rouse them for your son, who emerged from your body

the Lord of Crowns, Akhenaten, great in his lifetime.
90 And the great Queen whom he loves,
the Lady of the Two Lands :
Nefer-neferu-Aten Nefertiti,
who lives and is rejuvenated forever and ever.”

From the walls of Amarna – a portion of the Great Hymn to the Aten  written by the monotheist Pharoah Akenaten – 18th dynasty – 1160 B.C.

Read the entire hymn and compare it to Psalm 104.  The Great Hymn to the Aten was written hundreds of years before the first texts of the bible.

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What da Florida?

Florida has always been the center of the weird and crazies.  Some of the goings on here make folk from other states  gasp in diisbelief.

Not Floridians.  We don’t bat an eye.  There is a section of the morning news here in Tampa  called “What da Florida!” describing the latest weird Florida incident for its audience.  Each morning is a laugher.

Last week we had a doozy in Cape Coral, located in southwest Florida in a ruby red Republican district which usually casts 65% of its vote for the GOP.

Seems there has been some bitterness among Trump loyalists.  The Donald did carry Florida but this time it wasn’t enough.  You know the story of how the election was stolen.

Well last week a flag appeared.  The one in the picture above.

Tsk tsk.

The flags had become a point of concern for some parents who say their young children have read the explicit message.  Nothing about disrespect to the President of the United States.

Heavens!  We are good Christian people here!

One Republican woman quoted in the local news said  ‘Well, it doesn’t really offend me. It’s just the fact that I have small kids and they read it.’  So much for the offensiveness of “F–k Biden.”

Several who fly the same flag on their Cape Coral property, invoked their First Amendment rights, saying their flags are protected speech.

“Freedom of speech. You’re not going to rewrite the Constitution.”

A representative for the city agreed, saying Cape Coral does not regulate the messages written on flags.

“The City’s sign ordinance only addresses the number and size of signs. It does not regulate the content of flags or signs,” Maureen Buice, a senior public information specialist employed by the city, told the Washington Examiner in an email.

At least one of the owners of the flags said he has no intention of taking the flag down.

“If there was an ordinance, I would take it down tomorrow, but there’s not, so it’s going to remain up.”

Oh yeah?

Others in town began flying their own flags:

TRUMP LOST!  LOL!

And so it goes in Sunny Florida,

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