Why the Birth of Shakespeare Is the Birth of Modern Art

April 22, 2014, 9:50 PM

April 23, 2014, marks the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare, one of the greatest writers of all time and an inescapable influence not just on literature, but also on every form of culture since the 19th century. Although the canon of plays was more or less established with the publication of The First Folio in 1623, Shakespeare had to wait for larger acclaim until the Romantic era of the 1800s, when critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and August Wilhelm Schlegel first spread the Gospel of Will which would soon blossom into full bardolatry. In many ways, the Romantic era never ended and we are the “last” Romantics, full of ideas of individuality, imagination, and even love that would be totally foreign to the classical world. Even those who accept that the Romantic era’s over see it as a Post-Romantic era, a time defined by what it can no longer be.  This Romantic or Post-Romantic world gave birth to Modern art.  So, by an almost Biblical series of begats, you can say that the birth of Shakespeare is the birth of Modern art, the birth of how we see the world within and the world without today.

During Shakespeare’s own lifetime he was known best as the “honey-tongued” poet of such works as Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, in which he used classical and ancient characters to his own artistic purposes as well as practical purposes of making money during the plague-forced theater closures of 1593-1594. Readers literally read published copies of these works to pieces, making surviving copies extremely rare today. People went to see the plays, of course, but the emphasis of the theaters was on making money as much as making art. Publishing plays never became a priority because it never seemed profitable enough. It was Shakespeare’s friend and rival Ben Jonson who believed that publishing ones works in a collected way could serve both practical and artistic purposes. Jonson published his own collected works in 1616 and pushed for the posthumous collection of Shakespeare’s works in 1623, both of which served as templates for collected works of contemporaries such as Beaumont and Fletcher and others that essentially established the study of “modern” (that is, 16th century) literature as an art form as worthy as that of the already well-studied classics. Yes, Jonson deserves credit for making the initial push, but it was the inspiration of Shakespeare, as well as the lasting success of Shakespeare’s works in print, that set in motion what we know as literature today.

Once the Romantics got hold of Shakespeare, however, they turned the 16th century author into a 19th century “modern” contemporary. T.S. Eliot later complained about this trend in his 1920 essay “Hamlet”:

These minds often find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their own artistic realization. Such a mind had Goethe, who made of Hamlet a Werther; and such had Coleridge, who made of Hamlet a Coleridge; and probably neither of these men in writing about Hamlet remembered that his first business was to study a work of art.

While Eliot felt that the “first business was to study a work of art,” Goethe, Coleridge, and others felt that the reason behind that business was to make those works relevant to living, breathing people, even if that “made of Hamlet” the critic himself. Some argue that Shakespeare’s critical lull period during the 17th and 18th centuries owes something to the neo-classical tastes of the time in which individuality took a back seat to more communal ideals.

Once the modern taste for the individual took hold, however, Shakespeare found a home beyond England’s shores. American colonists staged plays by Shakespeare as early as 1750. “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835 in Democracy in America. From the very beginning of the American experiment in democracy, Shakespeare and his individualized characters inspired a government of, by, and for the people, to paraphrase the Gettysburg Address of that notorious Shakespeare lover Abraham Lincoln. As kings fell and democracies rose throughout Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, Shakespeare (often in vernacular translation) showed the way, sometimes in the form of music, as in Giuseppe Verdi’s operas Otello and Falstaff, which provided the popular soundtrack to the political movement by which modern Italy was born.

Modern, democratic societies longed for art that reflected their ideals and anxieties. So much modern art comes from the psychoanalytic ideas of Sigmund Freud, who mined ancient characters such as Oedipus for the infamous “complex,” but also plumbed the human psyche in the fictional person of Hamlet. The “-isms” of the 20th century also soon found new artistic uses for Shakespeare. German Expressionism, Russian Futurism, and European Marxism all explored new ways of staging the Bard to make the people understand their goals. More recently, art steeped philosophically in feminism, anti-colonialism, and sexualism views Shakespeare as friend or foe, but either way cannot escape the cultural gravitational pull of his massive influence.

Although the pedantic women of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” “come and go/ talking of Michelangelo” as a badge of cultural knowing, Eliot alludes in that poem to no less than three Shakespeare plays (Henry IV Part II, Twelfth Night, and that old Coleridgean favorite, Hamlet). Even Eliot couldn’t avoid Shakespeare in the making of modern poetic art. So, as we wish the Bard a happy 450th (the last round number anniversary some of us, including me, will likely see), we can wish him many, many more with the knowledge that we can join Ben Jonson’s tribute in that First Folio that Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time!”, including ours.

[Image: The “Chandos” Portrait of William Shakespeare (detail).]

Artists brains are ‘structurally different’ claims new study


Limited study found more grey and white matter in artists’ brains connected to visual imagination and fine motor control

It’s a truism to say that artists see the world differently from the rest of us, but new research suggests that their brains are structurally different as well.

The small study, published in journal NeuroImage, looked at the brain scans of 21 art students and 23 non-artists using a scanning method known as voxel-based morphometry.

Comparisons between the two groups showed that the artist has more neural matter in the parts of their brain relating to visual imagery and fine motor control.

Although this is certainly a physical difference it does not mean that artists’ talents are innate. The balance between the influence of nature and nurture is never easy to divine, and the authors say that training and upbringing also plays a large role in ability.

The brain scans were accompanied by various drawing tasks, with the researchers finding that those who performed best at these tests routinely had more grey and white matter in the motor areas of the brain.

“The people who are better at drawing really seem to have more developed structures in regions of the brain that control for fine motor performance and what we call procedural memory,” lead author Rebecca Chamberlain from KU Leuven University, Belgium told the BBC.

The artists also showed significantly more grey matter in the part of the brain called the parietal lobe, a region involved with a range of activities that include the capacity to imagine, deconstruct and combine visual imagery.

Scientists also suggest that the study would help put to rest the idea that artists predominantly use the right side of their brain, as the study showed that increased grey and white matter was found equally distributed.

Despite this, previous research has suggested that there are some hard-wired structural differences between individuals’ brains, with some of the divides falling across gender lines.

A ‘pioneering study’ published in December last year found that male brains had more neural connections running front to back while female brains had more connections between the right and left hemisphere. Scientist suggested that this could explain why men are ‘better at reading maps’ and women are ‘better at remembering a conversation.



Apparently you can’t be empathetic, or help the homeless, without a GoPro

Today in bad ideas: Strapping video cameras to homeless

people to capture “extreme living”

Today in bad ideas: Strapping video cameras to homeless people to capture "extreme living"

GoPro cameras are branded as recording devices for extreme sports, but a San Francisco-based entrepreneur had a different idea of what to do with the camera: Strap it to a homeless man and capture “extreme living.”

The project is called Homeless GoPro, and it involves learning the first-person perspective of homeless people on the streets of San Francisco. The website explains:

“With a donated HERO3+ Silver Edition from GoPro and a small team of committed volunteers in San Francisco, Homeless GoPro explores how a camera normally associated with extreme sports and other ’hardcore’ activities can showcase courage, challenge, and humanity of a different sort - extreme living.”

The intentions of the founder, Kevin Adler, seem altruistic. His uncle was homeless for 30 years, and after visiting his gravesite he decided to start the organization and help others who are homeless.

The first volunteer to film his life is a man named Adam, who has been homeless for 30 years, six of those in San Francisco. There are several edited videos of him on the organization’s site.

In one of the videos, titled “Needs,” Adam says, “I notice every day that people are losing their compassion and empathy — not just for homeless people — but for society in general. I feel like technology has changed so much — where people are emailing and don’t talk face to face anymore.”

Without knowing it Adam has critiqued the the entire project, which is attempting to use technology (a GoPro) to garner empathy and compassion. It is a sad reminder that humanity can ignore the homeless population in person on a day-to-day basis, and needs a video to build empathy. Viewers may feel a twinge of guilt as they sit removed from the situation, watching a screen.

According to San Francisco’s Department of Human Services‘ biennial count there were 6,436 homeless people living in San Francisco (county and city). “Of the 6,436 homeless counted,” a press release stated, “more than half (3,401) were on the streets without shelter, the remaining 3,035 were residing in shelters, transitional housing, resource centers, residential treatment, jail or hospitals.” The homeless population is subject to hunger, illness, violence, extreme weather conditions, fear and other physical and emotional ailments.

Empathy — and the experience of “walking a mile in somebody’s shoes” — are important elements of social change, and these documentary-style videos do give Adam a medium and platform to be a voice for the homeless population. (One hopes that the organization also helped Adam in other ways — shelter, food, a place to stay on his birthday — and isn’t just using him as a human tool in its project.) But something about the project still seems off.

It is in part because of the product placement. GoPro donated a $300 camera for the cause, which sounds great until you remember that it is a billion-dollar company owned by billionaire Nick Woodman. If GoPro wants to do something to help the Bay Area homeless population there are better ways to go about it than donate a camera.

As ValleyWag‘s Sam Biddle put it, “Stop thinking we can innovate our way out of one of civilization’s oldest ailments. Poverty, homelessness, and inequality are bigger than any app …”



The 2,000-Year History of GPS Tracking

| Tue Apr. 15, 2014 3:00 AM PDT
Egyptian geographer Claudius Ptolemy and Hiawatha Bray’s “You Are Here”

Boston Globe technology writer Hiawatha Bray recalls the moment that inspired him to write his new book, You Are Here: From the Compass to GPS, the History and Future of How We Find Ourselves. “I got a phone around 2003 or so,” he says. “And when you turned the phone on—it was a Verizon dumb phone, it wasn’t anything fancy—it said, ‘GPS’. And I said, ‘GPS? There’s GPS in my phone?’” He asked around and discovered that yes, there was GPS in his phone, due to a 1994 FCC ruling. At the time, cellphone usage was increasing rapidly, but 911 and other emergency responders could only accurately track the location of land line callers. So the FCC decided that cellphone providers like Verizon must be able to give emergency responders a more accurate location of cellphone users calling 911. After discovering this, “It hit me,” Bray says. “We were about to enter a world in which…everybody had a cellphone, and that would also mean that we would know where everybody was. Somebody ought to write about that!”

So he began researching transformative events that lead to our new ability to navigate (almost) anywhere. In addition, he discovered the military-led GPS and government-led mapping technologies that helped create new digital industries. The result of his curiosity is You Are Here, an entertaining, detailed history of how we evolved from primitive navigation tools to our current state of instant digital mapping—and, of course, governments’ subsequent ability to track us. The book was finished prior to the recent disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, but Bray says gaps in navigation and communication like that are now “few and far between.”

Here are 13 pivotal moments in the history of GPS tracking and digital mapping that Bray points out in You Are Here:

1st century: The Chinese begin writing about mysterious ladles made of lodestone. The ladle handles always point south when used during future-telling rituals. In the following centuries, lodestone’s magnetic abilities lead to the development of the first compasses.

Image: ladle

Model of a Han Dynasty south-indicating ladle Wikimedia Commons

2nd century: Ptolemy’s Geography is published and sets the standard for maps that use latitude and longitude.

Image: Ptolemy map

Ptolemy’s 2nd-century world map (redrawn in the 15th century) Wikimedia Commons

1473: Abraham Zacuto begins working on solar declination tables. They take him five years, but once finished, the tables allow sailors to determine their latitude on any ocean.

Image: declination tables

The Great Composition by Abraham Zacuto. (A 17th-century copy of the manuscript originally written by Zacuto in 1491.) Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary

1887: German physicist Heinrich Hertz creates electromagnetic waves, proof that electricity, magnetism, and light are related. His discovery inspires other inventors to experiment with radio and wireless transmissions.

Image: Hertz

The Hertz resonator John Jenkins. Sparkmuseum.com

1895: Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, one of those inventors inspired by Hertz’s experiment, attaches his radio transmitter antennae to the earth and sends telegraph messages miles away. Bray notes that there were many people before Marconi who had developed means of wireless communication. “Saying that Marconi invented the radio is like saying that Columbus discovered America,” he writes. But sending messages over long distances was Marconi’s great breakthrough.

Image: Marconi

Inventor Guglielmo Marconi in 1901, operating an apparatus similar to the one he used to transmit the first wireless signal across Atlantic Wikimedia Commons

1958: Approximately six months after the Soviets launched Sputnik, Frank McLure, the research director at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, calls physicists William Guier and George Weiffenbach into his office. Guier and Weiffenbach used radio receivers to listen to Sputnik’s consistent electronic beeping and calculate the Soviet satellite’s location; McLure wants to know if the process could work in reverse, allowing a satellite to location their position on earth. The foundation for GPS tracking is born.

​1969: A pair of Bell Labs scientists named William Boyle and George Smith create a silicon chip that records light and coverts it into digital data. It is called a charge-coupled device, or CCD, and serves as the basis for digital photography used in spy and mapping satellites.

1976: The top-secret, school-bus-size KH-11 satellite is launched. It uses Boyle and Smith’s CCD technology to take the first digital spy photographs. Prior to this digital technology, actual film was used for making spy photographs. It was a risky and dangerous venture for pilots like Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down while flying a U-2 spy plane and taking film photographs over the Soviet Union in 1960.

Image: KH-11 image

KH-11 satellite photo showing construction of a Kiev-class aircraft carrier Wikimedia Commons

1983: Korean Air Lines flight 007 is shot down after leaving Anchorage, Alaska, and veering into Soviet airspace. All 269 passengers are killed, including Georgia Democratic Rep. Larry McDonald. Two weeks after the attack, President Ronald Reagan directs the military’s GPS technology to be made available for civilian use so that similar tragedies would not be repeated. Bray notes, however, that GPS technology had always been intended to be made public eventually. Here’s Reagan’s address to the nation following the attack:

1989: The US Census Bureau releases (PDF) TIGER (Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing) into the public domain. The digital map data allows any individual or company to create virtual maps.

1994: The FCC declares that wireless carriers must find ways for emergency services to locate mobile 911 callers. Cellphone companies choose to use their cellphone towers to comply. However, entrepreneurs begin to see the potential for GPS-integrated phones, as well. Bray highlights SnapTrack, a company that figures out early on how to squeeze GPS systems into phones—and is purchased by Qualcomm in 2000 for $1 billion.

1996: GeoSystems launches an internet-based mapping service called MapQuest, which uses the Census Bureau’s public-domain mapping data. It attracts hundreds of thousands of users and is purchased by AOL four years later for $1.1 billion.

2004: Google buys Australian mapping startup Where 2 Technologies and American satellite photography company Keyhole for undisclosed amounts. The next year, they launch Google Maps, which is now the most-used mobile app in the world.

2012: The Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Jones (PDF) restricts police usage of GPS to track suspected criminals. Bray tells the story of Antoine Jones, who was convicted of dealing cocaine after police placed a GPS device on his wife’s Jeep to track his movements. The court’s decision in his case is unanimous: The GPS device had been placed without a valid search warrant. Despite the unanimous decision, just five justices signed off on the majority opinion. Others wanted further privacy protections in such cases—a mixed decision that leaves future battles for privacy open to interpretation.



What We Lose When We Rip the Heart Out of Arts Education

It’s National Poetry Month, but if the Common Core has its way,
our children will hardly know what poetry is.

Photo Credit: Aaron Amat via Shutterstock.com

“No, no. You’ve got something the test and machines will never be able to measure: you’re artistic. That’s one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it.” —Paul Proteus to his wife Anita in Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano

“So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens” is, essentially, a grammatical sentence in the English language. While the syntax is somewhat out of the norm, the diction is accessible to small children—the hardest word likely being “depends.” But “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams is much more than a sentence; it is a poem:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

A relatively simple sentence shaped into purposeful lines and stanzas becomes poetry. And like Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” and Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” it sparks in me a profoundly important response each time I read these poems:I wish I had written that. It is the same awe and wonder I felt as a shy, self-conscious teenager when I bought, collected and read comic books, marveling at the artwork I wished I had drawn.

Will we wake one morning soon to find the carcasses of poems washed up on the beach by the tsunami of the Common Core?

That question, especially during National Poetry Month, haunts me more every day, notably because of the double-impending doom augured by the Common Core: the rise of nonfiction (and the concurrent erasing of poetry and fiction) from the ELA curriculum and the mantra-of-the-moment, “close reading” (the sheep’s clothing for that familiar old wolf New Criticism):

We have come to a moment in the history of the U.S. when we no longer even pretend to care about art. And poetry is the most human of the arts—the very human effort to make order out of chaos, meaning out of the meaningless: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”).


The course was speech, taught by Mr. Brannon. I was a freshman at a junior college just 15-20 miles from my home. Despite the college’s close proximity to my home, my father insisted I live on campus. But that class and those first two years of college were more than living on campus; they were the essential beginning of my life.

In one of the earliest classes, Mr. Brannon read aloud and gave us a copy of “[in Just-]“ by e. e. cummings. I imagine that moment was, for me, what many people describe as a religious experience. That was more than 30 years ago, but I own two precious books that followed from that day in class: cummings’ Complete Poems and Selected Poems. Several years later, Emily Dickinson‘s Complete Poemswould join my commitment to reading every poem by those poets who made me respond over and over, I wish I had written that.

But my introduction to cummings was more than just finding the poetry I wanted to read; it was when I realized I was a poet. Now, when the words “j was young&happy” come to me, I know there is work to do—I recognize the gift of poetry.


As a high school English teacher, I divided my academic year into quarters by genre/form: nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and novels/plays. The poetry quarter, when announced to students, initially received moans and even direct complaints: “I hate poetry.” That always broke my heart. Life and school had already taken something very precious from these young people:

children guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew…
                              (“[anyone lived in a pretty how town],” e.e. cummings

I began to teach poetry in conjunction with popular songs. Although my students in rural South Carolina were overwhelmingly country music fans, I focused my nine weeks of poetry on the songs of alternative group R.E.M. At first, that too elicited moans from students in those early days of exploring poetry (see that unit on the blog “There’s time to teach”).

Concurrently, throughout my high school teaching career, students would gather in my room during our long mid-morning break and lunch (much to the chagrin of administration). And almost always, we played music, even closing the door so two of my students could dance and sing and laugh along with the Violent Femmes.

Many of those students are in their 30s and 40s, but it is common for them to contact me—often on Facebook—and recall fondly R.E.M. and our poetry unit. Those days meant something to them that lingers, that matters in ways that cannot be measured. It was an oasis of happiness in their lives at school.


e.e. cummings begins “since feeling is first,” and then adds:

my blood approves,
and kisses are better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter….

Each year when my students and I examined this poem, we would discuss that cummings—in Andrew Marvell fashion—offers an argument that is profoundly unlike what parents, teachers, preachers, and politicians claim.

I often paired this poem with Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” focusing on:

I was just guessing at numbers and figures
Pulling your puzzles apart
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart

Especially for teenagers, this question, this tension between heart and mind, mattered. Just as it recurs in the words of poets and musicians over decades, centuries. Poetry, as with all art, is the expressed heart—that quest to rise above our corporeal humanness:

               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
                                           (Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats)


I have loved a few people intensely—so deeply that my love, I believe, resides permanently in my bones. One such love is my daughter, and she now carries the next human who will add to that ache of being fully human—loving another beyond words.

And that is poetry.

Poetry is not identifying iambic pentameter on a poetry test or discussing the nuances of enjambment in an analysis of a Dickinson poem.

Poems are not fodder for close reading.

Poetry is the ineluctable “Oh my heart” that comes from living fully in the moment, the moment that draws us to words as well as inspires us toward words.

We read a poem, we listen to a song, and our hearts rise out of our eyes as tears.

That is poetry.

Like the picture books of our childhood, poetry must be a part of our learning, essential to our school days—each poem an oasis of happiness that “machines will never be able to measure.”


Will we wake one morning to find the carcasses of poems washed up on the beach by the tsunami of the Common Core?

Maybe the doomsayers are wrong. Maybe poetry will not be erased from our classrooms. School with less poetry is school with less heart. School with no poetry is school with no heart.

Both are tragic mistakes, because if school needs anything, it is more heart. And poetry? Oh my heart.

This piece originally appeared on the Becoming Radical blog.

The Comcast/TWC Merger Is About Controlling Information

“Comcast and proposed merger partner Time Warner Cable claim they don’t compete because their service areas don’t overlap, and that a combined company would happily divest itself of a few million customers to keeps its pay-TV market share below 30%, allowing other companies that don’t currently compete with Comcast to keep not competing with Comcast. This narrow, shortsighted view fails to take into account the full breadth of what’s involved in this merger — broadcast TV, cable TV, network technology, in-home technology, access to the Internet, and much more. In addition to asking whether or not regulators should permit Comcast to add 10-12 million customers, there is a more important question at the core of this deal: Should Comcast be allowed to control both what content you consume and how you get to consume it?”


U.S. Coup in Preparation in Venezuela?


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Alternative Visions Radio Show host, Green Shadow Cabinet Fed Reserve Chair, Dr. Jack Rasmus, and longtime union activist, Alan Benjamin, discuss the buildup toward a coup being prepared by US and its business-right wing friends in Venezuela today.

Listen to the show on Alternative Vision Radio – Here.

Alan Benjamin works in the International Labor Office in Geneva, Switzerland, and has access to information globally on the Venezuela situation. Benjamin provides an eye-witness view of contemporary events in Venezuela, based on his frequent direct contact with unionists on the ground in Venezuela in recent weeks and days. The discussion looks at current relationship of political forces today in Venezuela, including the various alignments of classes there, political parties, union organizations, students, US sponsored and funded NGOs, small business v. large businesses, small farmers and peasants, and splits within the military.

Benjamin explains the history of US coup attempts in Venezuela and Latin America in recent decades and parallels with recent events in the Ukraine coup. Who is behind the recent killings in the streets? What are the splits within the anti government right wing forces, as well as within the government itself? What are some of the USA’s current various plans (‘A, B, and C’) to destabilize Venezuela along multiple fronts? These and other related topics are addressed—in this ‘fact-based’ exploration of what’s happening in Venezuela today.

~ Jack Rasmus serves as Shadow Chair of the Federal Reserve on the Economy Branch of the Green Shadow Cabinet.

~ Alan Benjamin is a long time member of the Office & Professional Employees Union in the U.S. and its delegate for a number of years to the San Francisco Central Labor Council, AFLCIO. He is a member of the coordinating committee of the ‘Labor Fightback Network’ in the USA, and has been involved in numerous undocumented US workers’ organizations defending US immigrant workers rights, as well as active in organizations defending US students from government education spending cutbacks.

Fast Fortunes on the Diamond and Beyond

Too Much
Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz had some interesting comments to make about inequality at a U.S. Senate hearing last Tuesday. But his week’s wisest observation may have come in an interview with a Chinese journalist.

China’s richest 50 lawmakers, the journalist noted, hold a combined $15.3 billion in personal wealth. In the United States, the richest 50 lawmakers only hold $1.6 billion. Does this mean, the interviewer asked, that the U.S. Congress “represents the people” while China’s “represents rich capitalism”? 

Stiglitz didn’t laugh. America’s lawmakers, he patiently explained, may not have billions. But they need billions to get elected. They get those billions from the rich. These rich see their contributions as an investment. And, Stiglitz added, “when they make an investment, they expect a return.”

A simple point. Why can’t the Supremes get it? The McCutcheon ruling last week from America’s highest court basically leaves our rich perfectly positioned to maximize their political investment return. But all’s not lost. We do still have baseball. This week in Too Much: an inequality take on our national pastime.

Sometimes “reality TV” actually offers a window into reality. That may be the case with the truTV’s Bait Car series. The show’s set-up: Real police leave nice cars in impoverished neighborhoods, with keys in the ignition, and wait for a local to “take the bait.” Then viewers get to see the local panic when the police lock the car down and make the arrest. So what does the perverse humor of this bait-the-poor reality show tell us about our actual reality? In today’s deeply unequal America, notes Bait Car critic Jake Weissbourd, TV producers would never subject rich people to such humiliation, say with a set-up that offers a power suit an insider stock tip or clever tax evasion scheme. A show like that, points out Weissbourd, simply wouldn’t survive: “The full weight of the wealthy — the cries of entrapment, the libel suits — would crush it.”

Brian MoynihanCEO pay consultant Graef Crystal’s landmark 1991 book on soaring executive pay, In Search of Excess, wittily dissected the “almost infinite number of scenarios” that top execs had evolved to enrich themselves. Crystal seems to have lost his sense of outrage. His latest study rates Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan as underpaid because he’s making less than the “going rate” for similar execs elsewhere. Moynihan made $13.1 million in 2013. He should have made, holds Crystal, $18.8 million. AFL-CIO pay watcher Vineeta Anand’s reaction last week to Crystal’s Moynihan analysis: “Underpaid? Seriously?” Anand points to the share value Bank of America destroyed during the financial crisis. B of A, the Financial Times added Friday, will shortly pay out $800 million to settle charges the bank “misled customers” on credit card services.

Please don’t call the folks who work at London’s Benedict and Company “concierges.” They prefer to be known as “procurement specialists” — for the global “ultra high net worth” crowd. The firm’s specialists don’t do dinner reservations. They concentrate, notes spokesman Benedict Wormald, on “property and aircraft and yachts.” For one client, the firm came up with a classic 1940s Jaguar convertible painted in bright yellow, “a color they didn’t even do in the original.” Another client had the firm retrieve a set of beloved Louis Vuitton soft luggage that had sunk with her yacht and turn the water-logged pieces into a coffee table. The firm also arranges miniature versions of luxury cars for client children — at $27,000 a pop. Observes Wormald: “Until I got into this business, I never could have realized the level of wealth that is actually out there.”

Quote of the Week

“Since the 1960s, the richest one-thousandth of U.S. households, with a minimum net worth today above $20 million, have more than doubled their share of U.S. wealth, from around 10 percent to more than 20 percent. Take a moment to process that. One-thousandth of the country owns one-fifth of the wealth.”
Jordan Weissmann, The Shocking Rise of Wealth Inequality: Is it Worse Than We Thought? April 2, 2014

Reed HastingsReed Hastings, the Netflix billionaire, has discovered the rot that’s eating away at America’s future: locally elected school boards. In a California speech last month, Hastings called the nation’s schools “prisoners” of democratic governance and called instead for networks of charter schools run by “self-perpetuating” boards “not elected by the general public.” Hastings currently sits on the board of two major charter chains working to expand their student “market share.” Local school boards pose an obstacle to that expansion. They often don’t take kindly to for-profit chains grabbing public tax dollars to run schools that never have to answer to the public. The danger in the Hastings vision? Notes education historian Diane Ravitch: “No high-performing nation in the world has handed its schools over to private management.”


Retired Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill is now offering this Connecticut manse he owns for just $14 million. Why is Weill selling? Maybe because he owns a manse just as impressive as this one right next door. Weill also owns abodes in California’s Sonoma County, the Adirondacks, Manhattan, and the Bahamas. Weill made his first billion off the deregulation of the late 1990s that let commercial bankers make risky investments with the cash of their depositors.

Web Gem

Money Out/Voters In. A broad array of public interest, environmental, and labor groups are using this site to raise the alarm over the growing influence of big money on American politics. Last week’s Supreme Court decision to remove limits on total direct donations to political candidates and parties only makes this Web presence even more essential.

American workers today have a much higher level of education and work more productively than American workers four decades ago. Yet real wages have essentially not increased at all. What can the nation do to raise worker wages? The American Prospect has just advanced eight concrete proposals. The most original: Congress should link corporate tax rates to each company’s CEO-worker pay ratio. Corporations that pay CEOs 350 times what they pay their workers, about the current typical gap, would pay much more tax than corporations with only a 15-times gap, the ratio that management guru Peter Drucker first suggested in a 1977 Wall Street Journal analysis. A ratio-linked tax, adds American Prospect editor-at-large Harold Meyerson, would give corporate boards an incentive to finally start sharing the gains from rising productivity.

Take Action
on Inequality

Tell Congress to mandate disclosure, within 48 hours, of all political contributions of $1,000 or more to candidates, a first step in the fightback against last week’s Supreme Court McCutcheon decision.

inequality by the numbers
U.S. wealth distribution

Stat of the Week

CEO pay for 2013, USA Today reports, “could be one for the record books.” Compensation for the typical top exec jumped 13 percent for the year, says the paper’s annual executive pay report, and 15 execs realized over $100 million. Some perspective: Median full-time worker wages increased 1.4 percent in 2013 to $40,872.


Fast Fortunes: On the Diamond and Beyond

Baseball’s top hitter and Wall Street power suits both ply their trades in a high-speed world. That hitter will make over a quarter-billion in the next decade. The top suits stand to ‘earn’ astonishingly more.

Detroit Tigers infielder Miguel Cabrera may or may not turn out to be, by the time he retires, the best hitter in baseball history. But Cabrera already holds a historic distinction. Last month, just before baseball’s 2014 opening day, the 31-year-old slugger became America’s highest-paid professional ballplayer ever.

Miguel CabreraCabrera’s newly signed contract runs 10 years. Over that span he’ll receive paychecks totaling a record $292 million, a tidy sum that comes to a near $30 million annual average.

An even more compelling stat: Every time Cabrera steps up to the plate over the course of the next decade, he’ll pull in an average $43,195. For a five at-bat game, Cabrera will clear over $215,000.

How much revulsion should these numbers make us feel? On the one hand, Cabrera can do what only a relative handful of humankind can ever dream of doing. He can hit — with astounding regularity and power — a baseball coming at him at speeds up to 100 miles per hour.

On the other hand, Cabrera plays half his games in the city of Detroit, a bankrupt metropolis that can’t afford to fix its roads, police its streets, or meet its promises to retired teachers. Cabrera will make more in a week this season than current Detroit teachers will earn over their entire careers.

But these Detroit comparisons only take us so far. To truly appreciate the revolting significance of Cabrera’s new contract, we need to look up, not down. The rewards Miguel Cabrera will pull down pale against the windfalls now cascading into the pockets of America’s truly super rich, a fraternity that most definitely does not include Cabrera — or any other professional ballplayer.

In 2012, America’s top 25 hedge fund managers — the elite of the financial services industry — averaged $565.6 million each. That average for a single year nearly doubles what Cabrera will take home over the next 10 years.

And how do the kingpins of high finance hit their incredibly generous jackpots? What exceptional skills do they demonstrate? They have no exceptional skills. They have only exceptional power, the economic and political capacity to bend the rules and rig the games they play — to our disadvantage.

Last week a new book focused some long overdue public attention on one piece of that rigging. Miguel Cabrera hits high-speed fastballs. Our financial elite profit off high-speed trades.

The best-selling author Michael Lewis vividly describes this world of high-speed trading in his just-published book Flash Boys. The wonders of high tech, Lewis explains, are letting Wall Street’s shiftiest see the shares other investors are buying and selling milliseconds before the overall market finds out.

Armed with this inside info, high-speed traders can then make what essentially amount to sure bets. How sure? One high-speed trading hub, Virtu Financial, last month boasted that over the previous 1,278 Wall Street trading days, the firm had made money buying and selling shares of stock on exactly 1,277.

High-speed trading may now account, the New York Times notes, for half of all shares traded. This enormous volume translates into huge windfalls for players like Virtu and the big banks, hedge funds, and stock exchanges that enable their high-speed trading. The losers amid this rigging? Average Americans with their pension fund savings invested in the stock market.

Miguel Cabrera may be outrageously overpaid, but he at least comes by his rewards honestly. Cabrera never knows whether the baseballs that pitchers hurl at him will come in straight or curved, high or low, inside or outside. He has to make all these tricky distinctions in just a fraction of a second.

High-speed traders have their fractions of a second, too. But they don’t use their fractions to fashion skilled and honest decisions. They use their fractions to manipulate markets and make themselves fabulously rich.

We could curb this manipulating in a flash, points out economist Dean Baker, simply by putting in place a tiny tax on each and every Wall Street financial transaction.

Such a financial transaction tax may soon be in place in Europe. Legislation that would establish a similar levy stateside is currently pending before Congress — and going nowhere. Republicans across the board oppose the tax, and so do lawmakers in the Democratic Party’s hefty Wall Street-friendly wing.

So what can and should we do? Let’s leave our uneasiness over Miguel Cabrera’s paycheck on the back burner. We have bigger fish to fry. We have, for starters, a financial transaction tax to win.

New Wisdom
on Wealth

Matthew O’Brien, Why Don’t the 1 Percent Feel Rich? Atlantic, April 2, 2014. The merely rich are making more, but only the top 0.01 percent are creating our new Gilded Age.

Calvin Exoo and Christian Exoo, A Supreme Court out of control! How McCutcheon will spur corruption and inequality, Salon, April 2, 2014. Plutocracy’s moment has arrived.

Hamilton Nolan, The Myth of the CEO, Gawker, April 3, 2014. How CEO pay excess contributes to corporate disasters like GM’s years-long failure to fix known safety defects.

Robert Reich, McCutcheon and the Vicious Cycle of Concentrated Wealth and Political Power, April 3, 2014. Have we reached another tipping point?

Gawain Kripke, Five reasons to fight inequality: Pick one, The Politics of Poverty, April 4, 2014. An Oxfam analyst explains the choices.

Ruth Walker, Of ‘oligarchs’ and ‘plutocrats,’ Gulf News, April 5, 2014. Should we start teaching our children that they’re growing up in a plutocracy?

The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class cover

Read the full Intro to Too Much editor Sam Pizzigati’s new history of the triumph over America’s original plutocracy. More details.

NEW AND notable

How Differently Do the Rich See Our World?

Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels, and Jason Seawright, Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans, Perspective on Politics, American Political Science Association, March 2014.

The Supreme Court’s ruling last week that wiped away limits on how much overall the wealthy can contribute to political candidates has generated all sorts of headlines and hand-wringing. But do average citizens really need to worry about how much political influence the wealthy are wielding?

That depends, say political scientists. If the wealthy have “policy preferences” more or less in line with the general public, scholars point out, then more influence for the wealthy won’t have much of an impact one way or another.

But if the wealthy have “distinctive preferences that conflict with the interests of other citizens,” as Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels, and Jason Seawright note in this insightful new paper, any “disproportionate influence” they can bring to bear “would seem to create a serious problem for the working of democracy.”

In other words, how differently the wealthy and the rest of us think about our political options really matters. But you wouldn’t know that from the existing scholarly literature. We have, observe Page, Bartels and Seawright, precious little research “about the political attitudes and behavior of wealthy citizens.”

Thanks to the new work of these three investigators, we now know a good bit more. The three have given us a rather unique window into the world of America’s wealthiest 1 percent, based on a sophisticated polling project that has queried deep pockets in the Chicago metro area.

And what do we see when peer through this window? Do the attitudes of our richest differ markedly from attitudes in the general public? They most certainly do. Examples abound in this new Page, Bartels and Seawright paper.

Should the minimum wage be high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below the official poverty line? Some 40 percent of top 1 percenters think so. In the general public, by contrast, a whopping 78 percent feel that way.

Should the government in Washington see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job? Only 19 percent of our wealthiest 1 percent say yes, this new polling informs us, compared to 68 percent of the general public.

Should the federal government spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have really good public schools? Yes, say 35 percent of the rich. Yes, say 87 percent of everyone else.

The wealthy, this fascinating research goes on to show, lean much more favorably toward cutting Social Security. And they lean much more against increasing government regulation of Wall Street and big corporations.

All these huge attitudinal differences, the authors sum up with more than a tad of academic understatement, “could be troubling for democratic policy making.”

Yeah, we’ve noticed.

Why No One Trusts Facebook To Power The Future

Facebook has a perception problem—consumers just don’t trust it.


April 03, 2014

In the coming years, one billion more people will gain access to the Internet thanks to drones and satellites hovering in the stratosphere.

And soon, we’ll be able to sit down with friends in foreign countries and immerse ourselves in experiences never previously thought possible, simply by slipping on a pair of virtual reality goggles.

These aren’t just gaseous hypotheticals touted by Silicon Valley startups, but efforts led by one company, whose mission is to make the world more open and connected. If one company actually pulled off all of these accomplishments, it might seem like people would fall in love with it—but once you know it’s Facebook, you might feel differently. And you’re not alone.

Facebook has a perception problem, which is largely driven by the fact it controls huge amounts of data and uses people as fodder for advertising. Facebook has been embroiled in numerous privacy controversies over the years, and was built from the ground up by a kid who basically double-crossed his Harvard colleagues to pull it off in the first place.

These days, Facebook appears to be growing up by taking billion-dollar bets on future technology hits like WhatsApp and Oculus in order to expedite its own puberty.

Its billion-dollar moves in recent weeks point to a new Facebook, one that takes risks investing in technologies that have not yet borne fruit, but could easily be the “next big thing” in tech. One such investment, the $2 billion acquisition of Oculus, left many people scratching their heads as to why a social network would pick up a technology that arguably makes people less social, since Oculus is all about immersive gaming. At least the WhatsApp purchase makes a little more sense strategy-wise, even if the $19 billion deal was bad for users.

So begins Facebook’s transition from a simple social network to a full-fledged technology company that rivals Google, moonshot for moonshot.

Companies need to keep things fresh in order to make us want them, but Facebook, like Barney Stintson from How I Met Your Mother, just can’t shake its ultimately flawed nature and gain the trust of consumers.

The Ultimate Data Hoard

If you think you’re in control of your personal information, think again.

Perhaps the largest driver of skepticism towards Facebook is the level of control it gives users—which is arguably limited. Sure, you can edit your profile so other people can’t see your personal information, but Facebook can, and it uses your data to serve advertisers.

Keep in mind: This is information you provided just once in the last 10 years—for instance, when you first registered your account and offered up your favorite movies, TV shows and books—is now given tangentially to advertisers or companies wanting a piece of your pocketbook.

Not even your Likes can control what you see in your news feed anymore. Page updates from brands, celebrities, or small businesses that you subscribed to with a “Like” are omitted from your News Feed when page owners refuse to pay. Your Like was once good enough to keep an update on your News Feed, but now the company is cutting the flow of traffic and limiting status views by updating its algorithms—a move many people think is unfair, if not shiesty.

It’s not just Page posts taking a hit, audience-wise—even your own posts could be seen by fewer people if Facebook deems them “low-quality.”

To help eliminate links it doesn’t consider “news” like Upworthy or ViralNova, Facebook tweaked its algorithm to show fewer low-quality posts in favor of more newsworthy material, like stories from The New York Times. Of course, most people appreciate this move since click-bait links can get truly annoying, but it’s concerning that Facebook has so much control over the firehose of information you put in front of your eyes every single day.

Facebook owns virtually all the aspects of the social experience—photos (Instagram), status updates (Facebook), location services (Places)—but it has also become your social identity thanks to Facebook Login, which allows it to integrate with almost everything else on the Internet. This means if you’re not spending time on Facebook, you’re using Facebook to spend time online elsewhere.

It’s this corporate control of traffic that leads to frustration from those that believe Facebook owns too much, and that working with Facebook is like smacking the indie community hard across the face.

In a sense, people are stuck. They initially trusted a company with their data and information, and in return, those people feel—often justifiably—that they’re being taken advantage of. When the time comes for someone to abandon Facebook, whether over privacy concerns or frustration with the company, Facebook intentionally makes it hard to leave.

Even if you delete your account, your ghost remains. Your email address is still tied to a Facebook account and your face is still recognizably tagged as you, even if the account it’s associated with has vanished. In this way, Facebook is almost like any other cable company—even when you die, Facebook can still make money off you. And that’s not behavior fit for a company that’s poised to take over the future.

Leveling Up

Facebook missed the boat on mobile, and its much-maligned Android application interface Facebook Home was a major failure. Though Home was a small step into hardware, it was one users clearly didn’t want.

Now Facebook is dreaming bigger. With recent acquisitions like Oculus and drone maker Titan Aerospace, the company is looking to expand outside of its social shell and be taken seriously as a technology company and moonshot manufacturer.

Facebook’s well-known slogan “move fast and break things” is regularly applied to new products and features—undoubtedly a large part of Home’s initial failure. The company is ready to try again, this time with technologies and applications that consumers aren’t yet familiar with. But this has created more questions than answers in the eyes of users and investors. And that’s not good for a company with an existing perception problem like Facebook.

People see Facebook moving fast and breaking things to serve its own purposes, not for the benefit of the Internet, or in the case of Oculus, the benefit of dedicated fans.

Facebook isn’t leaving the social realm, at least not yet. It’s still relying on the flagship website to power its larger plans, particularly Internet.org, which aims to bring the next billion people online.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants a Facebook that connects the world, becoming a convenient way for people to find one another, and a gateway for Internet connectivity in developing countries.

Zuckerberg announced last week how he plans to bring the Internet.org initiative into fruition—and it sounds like a plan straight out of a sci-fi novel. The company is putting its newly-acquired drones to work, powering the Internet in communities that don’t yet have it, which is being accompanied by other technologies like lasers and satellites to distribute the connectivity in largely-populated areas.

When Zuckerberg first announced Internet.org, he initially threw shade at Google’s similar Project Loon, which attempts to connect the world via Wi-Fi balloons.

“Drones have more endurance than balloons while also being able to have their location precisely controlled,” he wrote in a white paper explaining the project. Of course regardless of the method, with more people online, Facebook will control more data and information, and have a larger pool of people to use for advertising.

To gain more users—and keep the ones it has—Facebook needs to change. But when Facebook’s CEO starts talking about drones and lasers powering the Internet, despite the company’s history of reckless privacy policies, it immediately sets off red flags for users.

Facebook Is Growing Up

Last October, when Facebook finally admitted teenagers were abandoning the network for other hot services like Snapchat and Tumblr, the Internet heaved a collective, “Told you so!” 

But teens aren’t the future for Facebook. Zuckerberg’s company has ambitions that go beyond selfies. It can’t remain the same forever, especially if it wants to stay relevant in the ever-changing technological landscape.

Facebook wants to build the Internet’s future infrastructure. It wants to be a part of the technology of that power the next billion people’s online experiences ten more years down the road. Zuckerberg has personally tried to bolster his raw perception with his $1 salary—a symbolic gesture, sure, but nothing Steve Jobs or Bill Gates hadn’t done before.

To build and control the future it wants, it will have to “be more cool” and ease up on its control of users. Facebook has many exciting projects, but it won’t have an audience left unless it addresses its perception problem. Trust is paramount, especially on the Internet, and people need to know that Facebook is making things to improve the human experience, not just spending billions to make even more billions off our personal information.

Facebook has a great opportunity to improve its image with its exciting multi-billion dollar acquisitions. Prove to us you don’t just care about money, Facebook, and perhaps we’ll all realize how much you really have grown in the last 10 years.

Lead image by Madeleine Weiss for ReadWrite; Oculus Rift photo by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite; drone photo courtesy of Titan Aerospace


A Hard Rain: Noah, Revised


More Tolkien than Torah, Darin Arinovsky’s “Noah” is a cinematic tour de force that combines breathtaking CGI-based imaginary landscapes with a film score by Clint Mansell that hearkens back to Hollywood’s golden age of Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner. Even without a single minute of dialog, the film achieves the mesmerizing quality of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, especially the last installment Naqoyqatsi, the Hopi word for “Life at War”.

Like other films that view the bible as a theme to riff on in the manner of Miles Davis improvising on a banal tune like “Billy Boy”, Aronovsky takes the material of Genesis 5:32-10:1 and shapes it according to his own aesthetic and philosophical prerogatives. As might be expected, the Christian fundamentalists are not happy with the film since it turns Noah into something of a serial killer on an unprecedented scale, acting on what he conceives of as “the Creator’s” instructions, namely to bring the human race to an end. Religious Jews who have a literalist interpretation of the bible have been far less vocal, no doubt a function of the Hasidic sects viewing all movies as diversions from Torah studies. (For those with unfamiliarity with Jewish dogma, the Torah encompasses the first five books of the Old Testament that are replete with fables such as the Great Flood, many of which have inspired some classic cinematography, such as Charlton Heston splitting the Red Sea.)

Unlike the fable it is based on, Aronovsky’s Noah never received instructions about being fruitful and multiplying. His intention is to leave the planet to the animals and wind down the human race’s participation in the tree of life, to use the title of Terrence Malick’s overrated 2011 film. In my view, Aronovsky has much deeper thoughts and more sure-handed cinematic instincts than Malick could ever hope for. To pick only one scene, the massive moving carpet of animals headed toward the Ark is a CGI tour de force. Instead of a stately procession in circus parade fashion, it is more like a zoological tsunami that anticipates the great tsunami soon to follow.

Clint Mansell, whose orchestral accompaniment to this and other key scenes is so effective, has an interesting background. He was the lead singer and guitarist for the band Pop Will Eat Itself, a group that originated in 1981 and whose style incorporated hip-hop and industrial rock at one point or another. Mansell made the transition to film score composer in 1998, working on Aronovsky’s first film “Pi”, a surrealist thriller about a character named Maximillian Cohen who believed that everything in nature could be understood through numbers.

Speaking of numbers, Russell Crowe was cast perfectly as Noah given his past leading roles. As mathematician John Nash in A Perfect Mind, who suffered from schizophrenia, he played a man hearing voices after the fashion of Noah. The voices in Nash’s head told him that he had to save the world from the Commies, while those in Noah’s assured him that “the Creator” needed to kill everybody on earth except Noah and his immediate family. Which character was more insane? That’s the real question.

Another role that prepared Crowe for his latest was as Captain of the HMS Surprise, a British warship led on an Ahab-like pursuit of a French rival during the Napoleonic wars. As Captain Jack Aubrey, Crowe was ready to sacrifice his crew and himself for the greater glory of the British monarchy just as Noah was ready to do for “the Creator”, an entity that never makes much of an appearance in Aronovsky’s film, unlike the typical Biblical epic.

One of the two revisionist elements of Aronovsky’s film that have merited the most controversy is his inclusion of a character named Tubal-Cain who is a descendant of Adam’s bad son just as Noah is a descendant of the good son Seth. Played by Ray Winstone, Tubal-Cain is the warlord ruling over all those wicked people the Creator is bent on destroying, just like an artist who burns a painting from earlier in his career that he deems inferior to his latest. Unlike a movie based on the tale of “Sodom and Gomorrah”, it is not quite clear what got enraged God. After all, there are no sadomasochistic orgies going on in Tubal-Cain’s camp as he lays siege to Noah’s Ark (not that there is really anything wrong with sadomasochistic orgies). All we know from the Torah is that “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth.” If you read the bible carefully, you’ll understand that the deity gets much more pissed off at worshipping false idols than he does over murder, theft, rape, and other acts normal people consider far more wicked. Indeed, Tubal-Cain is convinced that Noah is a mad man since his fundamentally “deep ecology” views on the need to rid the planet of the pestilent homo sapiens is at odds with God making man in his own image and giving him ”dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” What’s wrong with that? Animal rights lovers and vegetarians need not apply.

The other element is “the watchers”, who are Ent-like creatures that help Noah and his family ward off Tubal-Cain’s warriors while serving as carpenters on the Ark. Instead of being tree-like monsters, they are giants made of stone who happen to be “fallen angels” trying to get on the Creator’s good side after their past transgressions. Unlike the characters in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, these angels seem perfectly reasonable and no threat to the established order. As is persistent throughout the film and the Old Testament itself, the Creator’s moral compass often seems more broken than those he holds dominion over.

That fundamentally strikes me as the underlying philosophical issue of Aronovsky’s film, namely the impossibility of living a “good life” on the basis of biblical myths, legends, and fables. The moral relativism of “Noah” was likely to have angered those who believe that the bible was literally written by God, even if it was close to the mark.

The film also resonates with current-day concerns over a new threat to the continued existence of humanity, namely the climate change that is capable of a new Great Flood that will unfortunately only kill the innocent rather than the wicked. What the bible never makes clear is that god is merciful to those who have capital rather than pure hearts.

Unlike the past five extinctions, the sixth that is posed by climate change and other looming environmental disasters will be as a result of human intervention rather than a deus ex machina like a meteor.

Interestingly enough, there is some scholarly support for the idea that a great flood occurred in the distant past, one that is evoked not only in the Torah but in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh and Plato’s Timaeus as well.

In an article titled “Noah’s Flood Reconsidered” for the autumn 1964 issue of Iraq, a scholarly journal, E.I. Mallowan concluded that the flood depicted in the Epic of Gilgamesh—the obvious inspiration for Noah—occurred some time prior to 2650 BC.

Indeed, archaeologists working in the ancient city of Ur in 1928-29 found evidence of two deep pits that exposed a stratum of “clean water-laid clay”, proving in their eyes that a Noachian-type flood had occurred. However, neither the Epic of Gilgamesh nor the archaeologists viewed the flood as impacting all of humanity, only a great city and civilization that existed at the dawn of history. Despite Iraq’s reputation as desert-like, it is also subject to powerful storms that wash away everything in its path—a natural catastrophe rivaling the man-made catastrophe of George W. Bush.

It has been many years since I looked at Plato’s Timaeus—48 in fact, when I was avoiding the draft in the New School Graduate Philosophy program—but I took a quick look in preparing this article.

Like the rest of his work, this is a Socratic dialog in which the principals are sounding boards for Plato’s idealism. One of them, an Athenian named Timaeus, describes a Creator who is a lot more human than the cruel and capricious figure of the Old Testament: “Why did the Creator make the world?…He was good, and therefore not jealous, and being free from jealousy he desired that all things should be like himself.” And, like the hero of Darin Aronovsky’s “Pi”, Plato’s creator sees the natural world as one based on numbers. After creating three major entities of the existing world—body, soul, and essence—god proceeded to divide the entire mass into portions related to one another in the ratios of 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 8, and 27.

Once Timaeus establishes the ratios that govern the known universe, he drills down into the less than perfect reality that govern our daily lives, such as those inflicted on our bodies: “When on the other hand the body, though wasted, still holds out, then the bile is expelled, like an exile from a factious state, causing associating diarrhoeas and dysenteries and similar disorders.”

Critias, another Athenian, weighs in on the ever-present danger of natural catastrophes including the one that befell Atlantis:

Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia….But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.

Perhaps someday archaeologists will discover evidence of a great flood that destroyed Atlantis just as they have found evidence of the flood depicted in the Epic of Gilgamesh. In late January divers discovered perfectly preserved stone-age tools that were between 10 and 11,000 years old in the Swedish bay of Hanö. Södertörn University’s Björn Nilsson, the leader of the research team, was annoyed (by comparisons in the popular press made to Atlantis:

Nilsson admitted that “lousy Swedish tabloids” had blown the story out of the water by labelling the find “Sweden’s Atlantis”, even though the remnants never belonged to an actual village. The people were all nomadic at the time, he explained, so there was no village. He trumpeted, however, that the finds so far were “world-class” and “one-of-a-kind”. He added that was extremely rare to find evidence from the Stone Age so unspoiled.

We’ll probably never know what caused these nomads to be swept away by floods but we will know what might cover Manhattan under the Atlantic in the not too distant future. We cannot go back in history to change the circumstances that led to such disasters but we can control our own fate in order to save both animals and the human race. For that effort we need to rely on science and radical politics, not the Creator.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.