It's Funny That Way

Many classic comic acts featured contrasting personalities. Laurel and Hardy, Mutt and Jeff come to mind, because it sets up an absurd juxtaposition. The news is no different. Even Karl Marx understood this. He said, "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

The farce is supplied by New York Times editor Dean Baquet calling USC law professor Marc Cooper an "asshole" on Facebook for daring to criticize his decision "not to publish any of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting Mohammad." The tragedy is provided by the Boko Haram, which, oblivious to the inside baseball games of Western intellectuals has gone and randomly killed thousands of elderly men, women and children in northern Nigeria. CNN reports on the drive-by shooting to end all drive-by shootings.

Boko Haram militants opened fire on northern Nigerian villages at dawn, leaving as many as 2,000 people feared dead and bodies scattered everywhere, officials said.

Islamist militants sprayed bullets as they stormed in driving trucks and armored vehicles last weekend, local authorities said Friday.

The Business Insider calls it "one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in history". That might be true, but it won't matter because it's only happening in Africa.

According to Musa Alhaji Bukar, a senior government official who spoke to the BBC, Baga, which once had a population of about 10,000 people, is now “virtually non-existent.”

The multi-day rampage focused on Baga and the surrounding towns and villages. The militants razed an estimated 16 towns around Baga, according to the BBC.

“These towns are just gone, burned down,” Borno State Senator Ahmed Zanna told NBC News. “The whole area is covered in bodies.”

Venezuela, for those who have been following its misfortunes, is just about done. That worker's paradise has been improved to the point where the country has put the grocery stores under martial law. "Shoppers thronged grocery stores across Caracas today as deepening shortages led the government to put Venezuela’s food distribution under military protection."

Long lines, some stretching for blocks, formed outside grocery stores in the South American country’s capital as residents search for scarce basic items such as detergent and chicken.

“I’ve visited six stores already today looking for detergent -- I can’t find it anywhere,” said Lisbeth Elsa, a 27-year-old janitor, waiting in line outside a supermarket in eastern Caracas. “We’re wearing our dirty clothes again because we can’t find it. At this point I’ll buy whatever I can find.”

The Guardian gives voice to the puzzlement of Venezuela's central planners: 'No one can explain why a rich country has no food'. Fortunately someone has come up with an answer. The Venezuelan government claims the CIA is orchestrating the shortages.

In 2008, when there was another serious wave of food scarcity, most people blamed shop owners for hoarding food as a mechanism to exert pressure on the government's price controls, a measure that former president Hugo Chávez adopted as part of his self-styled socialist revolution.

This time, however, food shortages have gone on for almost a year and certain items long gone from the shelves are hitting a particular nerve with Venezuelans. Toilet paper, rice, coffee, and cornflour, used to make arepas, Venezuela's national dish, have become emblematic of more than just an economic crisis.

"We used to produce rice and we had excellent coffee; now we produce nothing. With the situation here people abandoned the fields," says Jesús López, in reference to government-seized land that sits idle. "Empty shelves and no one to explain why a rich country has no food. It's unacceptable," adds the 90-year-old farmer from San Cristóbal, on the western state of Táchira, bordering Colombia. ...

According to President Nicolás Maduro, the food shortages are being artificially induced by the opposition. He claims they form part of wider plan concocted by the CIA to destabilise his government, sabotage the oil industry and trigger power cuts.

That Venezuela part is the tragedy.

The farce component is provided by a drama involving the CIA itself. "The Justice Department is weighing bringing criminal charges against former CIA Director David Petraeus over the handling of classified information ...Federal investigators have been looking into whether Petraeus improperly shared classified materials with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, with whom he admitted having an affair when he resigned from his position in November 2012. Agents found a substantial number of classified documents on Broadwell's computer and at her home, a law enforcement official has previously said."

The Baquet-Cooper exchange and the Petraeus investigation would be important stories in their own right, but in the context of current events they only serve to underscore the gap between the enormity of the contemporary challenges in comparison to the littleness our leader's conceptions.  We're like senile people saving the pillows from the fire and leaving the cash and passport in the drawer to burn. At least Captain Smith on the Titanic knew how grave his problems were. But if today's leaders were on that ill-fated ship they would be worrying themselves sick over the cancellation of next evening's dinner entertainments.

The last 70 years have lulled us into thinking there were no more storms, no more icebergs to be found at sea. The long peace, the prolonged boom, the defeat of the Soviet Union, the fading of the nuclear shadow convinced the public that it was safe to dispense with the sailors to whom vessels were heretofore entrusted and to appoint the Cruise Director in his place. No more heed would be paid to stability and navigation. From now on, the emphasis would be on deck games, special events and other entertainments, for they were all that we needed.

How else to explain the curious focus of president Obama on "free community colleges", effectively extending high school for two more years? In the first place, as Danielle Douglas-Gabriel of the Washington Post noted, it couldn't possibly be "free" unless the Republicans could be induced to fund it.

President Obama on Thursday proposed free tuition for students to attend two years of community college. The White House, which estimates that 9 million people a year could benefit from the program, says it wants community college to be as "free and universal" as high school.

But there's a major catch (aside from just the fact that a Republican-led Congress is unlikely to sign off). Free tuition, even for two years, is not nearly enough to cover the cost of attending college.

More fundamentally, it couldn't be free in any case. At a time when Medicaid payments to doctors are being slashed because federal funds are drying up; when insurance premiums are being raised to provide "subsidies" for others, when the Armed Forces Budget is being cut to the bone and beyond, it is astonishing that people at the highest levels of government can still talk about giving people something for nothing.

The shocking thing isn't that Obama would propose a free lunch.  What is really scandalous is that he may actually think the thing exists.

But that's the world we live in. Venezuela is a country where nobody in authority knows where things sold in stores come from.  Washington is a town where nobody knows how anything is paid for.  The New York Times is a paper where nobody knows what anything is called.  The FBI is probably the best off of the bunch.  All they have to do is figure out what to charge David Petraeus with.

The public stage is filled with the sound and fury of people who still think they are in charge.  Most have risen to the pinnacles of their professions according to an insular set of rules which signified something once, but which have become vestigial without anyone noticing. "Who sent you?" And so on. None of them have realized they've become passengers on a vast ship they've forgotten how to sail. For them things just seem a a little different lately, and are even a little worried, but they can't tell you why.

Year ago the science fiction author Brian Aldiss described revolution as a process of loss and discovery. Things come to a head when we realize we took a wrong turn some miles back, but how far back, nobody knows. The real sign that you're lost is when the driver can't talk about anything but trivia.  But not to worry.  Let's stop and go up to that house on a hill with a red light burning in the window. We'll ask for directions there and everything will be fine.

The really crucial step to changing the world is altering one's perception of it. Leaders trapped in institutional corridors wielding "power" find that thinking out of their box is very hard to do.  During times of intellectual ferment most of the relevant knowledge is concentrated in events where the model breaks and not where it succeeds.

One is almost tempted to reply to Marx "that all great world-historic crises occur, so to speak, in two stages: the first when we realize that we don't know where we are, and the second when we accept that we never did."  It takes a while to get the joke;  for Marx, who believed history could be predicted, it will probably take a very long time.


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