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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: February 2011


When politicians open their mouths - and they do it quite habitually - the first thing that occurs to me is: "Why tell it like it is when such dazzling assortment of mirrors is readily available and smoke can be purchased at virtually unlimited quantities?" Or to put it curtlier - "Have they no shame"? Half a century ago, George Orwell pointed out that a creeping political rot can manifest itself in a certain disconnect between words and their meaning, which he aptly dubbed "newspeak". As with his other observations, he was right on the money. The garlands of platitude provide an early warning indicator that ranking officials are losing their political touch - instead of shaping the civic discourse, they spend more and more time groping the public opinion. And that's the beginning of the end. Once the form gets smothered with lipstick and the content starts slipping into factual insolvency, the hollowness is but a knock away.

Example. Two years ago, we bailed out our reckless banksters to the tune of several trillion dollars. We had mopped up the mess they so skillfully orchestrated, we had paid off the astronomical debts they so blissfully amassed. But do you think our congressfolks fessed up and admitted that their beloved donors who nearly annihilated the global financial system needed to have their bottom line boo boos blown at by a turbocharged ventilator? Nah. All the hectic and unprecedented triage was ostentatiously touted as a help to struggling homeowners, nay as a valiant effort to keep the American dream alive. Indeed, pounding your political chest on behalf of greedy banks would be borderline suicidal - better be seen rubbing your fatherly forehead on behalf of hoi polloi.

Yet it wasn't the homeowners who got zero interest loans from the Fed. In fact, many lost their homes in the ensuing carnage. It was exactly the hustlers who lined their pockets in the housing market Ponzi scheme - the big banks shareholders and bondholders - who were on the receiving end of this debt laundering operation. Still, despite the Wall Street's massive PR effort, many people saw right through it. This outcropping of newspeak was so thinly veiled that it almost made me wonder: "Do they assume we are all compulsive morons?"

More recent example. This past December, President Obama extended the Bush tax cuts despite the fact that we are actively engaged in two expensive wars and running a mammoth deficits at 10% of GDP. After a flatulent bout of kabuki with GOP, these ill-conceived benefits were awarded across the whole earning spectrum to include all the usual globalization profiteers - the high financiers, the enthusiastic job exporters, the advanced weaponry peddlers. After the shellacking in midterms, this outcome was no shocker: the Republicans are mostly rich, they hobnob with the rich and they naturally look out for them. But the idea of shoveling additional dough into the coffers of their golfing "buddies" - whether they recruited from Goldman Sachs, Haliburton, JP Morgan or British Petrol - would have difficulty flying in the post-collapse environment. Hence the Great Job Creating Newspeak was slapped on the ensuing polemic where it cleverly masked what amounted to looting of the Public Treasury. Never mind that no elected repressentator really explained why the super wealthy should bother creating jobs with their windfalls when they could get better return on investment in precious metals or emerging markets or why weren't we swimming in a pool of jobs to begin with, after nearly 10 years of rigorous application of the Trickle Down Theory.

That detail, however, prevented neither Speaker Boehner nor President Obama from going on a chirping offensive, celebrating in rare unison the lifeblood they just poured into economy's clogged veins. I am sure Lousiana fishermen will sleep so much better knowing that all those needy billionaires will finally be able to replace that imitation tiger rug in the third bedroom of their second yacht by the real deal. If we stay this course, vacuuming those rugs and scrubbing the yacht decks squeaky clean will be the only real jobs left. I guess my idea of job creation would be high income taxes and specific projects - like the Hoover dam. That is what I'd consider an oldspeak. You know - say where the money comes from and also say where it will go to. But verbal prestidigitation and vague references to flows of hundred of billions of dollars mysteriously gushing from the horn of the Federal Reserve and inundating the financial markets don't sound very concrete to me. Admittedly, some of them may eventually seep onto the balance sheets of multinational corporations, but most will probably drown in the swamp of red tape and bureaucratic incompetence, never to be seen by an average Joe.

That leaves us with a natural question: where does the political newspeak come from? A great opportunity to see under the hood of its glistening body is the current skirmish about raising the federal debt ceiling. On the one hand we have the White House pushing hard to maintain its bloated budget, on the other we can see Republicans attempting to dust off their fiscal sanity mantra which they conveniently suspended during the Bush years spendopalooza. The exorbitant levels of grandstanding and posturing make it hard to identify the real sources of mischief. After all, in the heat of a high profile battle, common sense is often the first casualty, especially when everyone's agenda bag is loaded like the front row at a mafia funeral. But if you step back into cooler times, you can find great words of wisdom. Not so long ago (March 2006), when he was still but a Senator, President Obama had much healthier sentiment towards the issue of public debt:

"The fact that we are here today to debate raising America's debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. Government can't pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our Government's reckless fiscal policies...

Increasing America's debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that 'the buck stops here'. Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better."

There. That was some clarity of vision. The resolve of a young king.

But how quickly do political winds change! How quickly does the fresh blood of a young Senator become infected with the virus of easy money. I guess having your name printed on the White House stationery can radically sway your opinion about "leadership failure", especially when your principal whisperers, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, are well soaked in the bubbling pot of Wall Street finance. There is a reason why Obama's campaign got almost a cool million from Goldman Sachs alone - roughly four times as much as John McCain. Financial sector is the main pusher of the poisonous debt. They create the credit out of thin air and they profit from its distribution tremendously.

This is the perennial bane of all politicians - the higher they are the longer the list of special interests they are beholden to. And that is also the ultimate source of the newspeak. The competing and frequently conflicting interests of those who lifted you to power won't allow you to say anything with real substance let alone spunk.

Purr of the Moment

To my own detriment, I am not much of a planner. I live from one moment to the next. With a bit of exaggeration, I could say that I view every passing minute as a room in the palace of life with multiple doors leading to other minutes. Which specific door I choose to open next depends on many factors. What kind of noises do I hear from the other room? How appealing is the door frame? What is my risk tolerance today? Have I been there before?

And sometimes I open a door just for fun. Out of curiosity.

Needless to say, robots are pretty low on my list of role models. In my system of values, methodical analysis carries about as much natural appeal as hiatal hernia. I would not make a good wedding planner. Nor would I be a particularly competent Royal Protocol Officer. I'd much rather haphazardly roam though the highlands of Scotland than follow a detailed itinerary during a leisure trip to Aberdeen.

I just don't like to see my future bound in the straight jacket of a blueprint or a timetable. Don't get me wrong, life should certainly have a skeleton - I just prefer mine to come from an instinct rather than reason. I have always preferred the vibrant chaos of a tropical jungle to the orderly neatness of a developed farmland. The fact that I grew up in the Soviet Bloc and have personally witnessed the spectacular economic failure of planned economy may have contributed, too. But my predilection for living off the cuff has yet another root - one that has to do with psychology. Planning distorts our perception of reality and thus indirectly affects our happiness.

The moment you plan an event, you create its image in your mind and that image is somewhat idealized. When the reality finally happens, it has to compete really hard with this image and the outcome can be devastating. The more details you put in your plan, the more aspects that your mind carefully optimized can be left wanting. Reality just does not have the budget to beat expectations. And even if it did, by the time the event happens you may not even be in the mood to appreciate it. Not to mention that destiny has a way of derailing the best thought out plans.

Spur-of-the-moment decisions have no standards to measure up to. They enter the ever changing world in the chariot of imagination and have supreme reign over its course. You go where your heart wants to go. Spontaneity leads you through the verdant valleys of now and into the green pastures of very soon. It tracks your mood with a precision of laser guided missiles. And when you absorb all the sensory input you get - the sounds, the smells, the reflections, the noises, the shapes, the harmony - you become a slab of violin wood. You resonate. You realize that a moment can purr like a content cat.

Nothing against planning, but it is my empirical experience that last minute decisions are the ones that often produce the most memorable events. Improvisation is like a trek through the Old West. No roads to follow, no museums to visit, no entrance fees to pay, just the smell of virgin land tickling your sense of adventure.


Tahrir Square Avalanche

There are many places on Earth where a reasonably rational person could expect an avalanche - Juneau, Alaska, Rogers Pass in British Columbia, Himalayas, Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia or the Princeton Institute for Advanced Avalanche Studies if there is such thing. But you would be hard pressed against a sheer rock to look for it in the middle of the capital of Egypt. Yet that is exactly where one happened this month. An unstoppable avalanche of public anger and pent up frustration swept the deeply entrenched president Hosni Mubarak right into the dumpster of history. As if the downtrodden descendants of mighty pharaohs suddenly remembered the Golden Rule of Political Hygiene. You change your dictators at least once every 30 years.

Political avalanches have various causes. Sometimes external, sometimes internal. Removing an obstacle that supports a critical amount of snow can do the trick, as exemplified by a domino of anti-communist revolutions that thundered through Eastern Europe in 1989 after the rigid reign of Leonid Brezhnev was gradually replaced by a more liberal Michail Gorbachev. In the case of Egypt, however, I think the avalanche was set off by internal strain. The kind you get when snow slowly accumulates at the edge, one flake at a time, at first without any visible effect, just quietly piling layer upon layer until, in one moment, its cohesion can no longer support its own weight and - all of a sudden - the whole mass bursts into motion.

Egyptians are not known to be notorious rabble rousers. They endured their longstanding dictatorial regime with unusual restraint. Year after year they meekly swallowed the humiliation of the tyrannical rule and tried to ply their trade as best as they could. But one persecution after another, one silenced opposition voice at a time, the overhang of discontent grew larger and larger. After 30 years of living in the shadows, something suddenly snapped. The snowdrift could not support itself any more. The chalice of malice overflowed. The people made their move and nothing could stop them.

Just like the freshly fallen snow which rides on top of an avalanche, it was the youngest faces that surfaced from within the fist shaking crowd. It was their hallmark courage that sustained the revolutionary spirits in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

See, older folks carry the scars of their own lost battle with the regime - they learned to live with it, like you learn to live with a chronic disease. They learned not to stick out their necks. They learned to enjoy small pleasures of life found on the regime's periphery. They learned how to make compromises. The kids don't come equipped with those skills. The new generation wants their dreams unadulterated.

You could see that uncompromising attitude in the CNN interview with a young Google executive Wael Ghonim whose Facebook network was instrumental in starting this uprising. With determination and fervor of a true leader, he spoke through the camera's lens directly to the regime: "We are getting back our country. You guys have been ruining this country for 30 years. Enough. Enough. Enough"

That was a pure resolve.

Yep, snowbanks grow slowly and quietly, but once they get moving, you better get out of the way.

In August 1980, a little known Polish electrician without any political function or influence scaled a fence in the Gdansk ship yard and energized the workers striking for better conditions. His name was Lech Walesa. He became the independent union leader, the symbol of the Freedom Movement in times when his country was merely a Soviet satellite, and eventually the President of Poland.

So here is to Wael Ghonim. May he one day become the President of Free Egypt.



stuck in a creaky elevator for eternity
some five thousand floors below the ground
devil in a gray sheen suit leaned smoothly over
and stuck its forked tongue in angel's ear
tiny watery peas came rolling down her cheeks
she bit her rosy lips in blinded determination
her fingers squeezed dried flowers in her pocket
while a pair of well hidden ceiling speakers
kept softly crooning: happy birthday to you

tears in bloom
fine feathered tomb

unprepared dish
wishes and fish

now rolling the dice
don't close your eyes

on the ninth floor an iron foot kicked the door open
six billion polished ping pong balls poured into the vestibule
their optical syncopation flickering on gilded walls
six billion tap dancing judges, no longer an empty court
a gallop of major chords parted their cascading swarm
to make way for a dark bearded man with massive veins
riding a prancing eraser down the marble staircase of memory
look - he's got a shiny brass trombone at his mouth
and frazzled angel with downy wings clinging to his back


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