Sunday, February 21, 2016


 Allegory of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti

A recent New Yorker (February 1, 2016) carried an article about the number of children murdered annually in the United States. Exaggeration has placed this figure around 12,000; but realistically, the figure hovers around 500. Only 500? What does 500 murdered children mean? This is not 500 children in Afghanistan, this is not 500 children in Yemen, this is not 500 children in Iraq. But are these 500 murdered U.S. children living in a war zone? This is the question we need to ask.

Is domestic United States in 2016 a war zone as that expression is normally understood?

Pondering this question, I was reminded from my college days of the Allegory of Good and Bad Government painted in the Council Chambers of the Town Hall of the City of Siena in Italy by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, in the year 1338-1339. Three room-sized frescoes depict not only the allegory of good Government, but very methodically address the Effects of Bad Government in the City; the Effects of Bad government in the Country; and the Effects of Good Government in the City and the Effects of Good Government in the Country. They were commissioned by the townspeople of Siena in order to remind the town council to exercise the responsibility of their office by promoting the wellbeing not only of its citizens, but of the entire environment, cultural, social, political, and agricultural, obeying the natural order of the seasons in alignment with the planets.

The transition between city and country is depicted by a procession passing through the city gates and out into the countryside. The legend reads “Without fear every person may travel freely and each may till and sow, so long as this commune shall maintain Lady Justice sovereign, for she has stripped the wicked of all power.”  Both Justice is displayed, and Tyranny. What makes this cycle of frescoes absolutely fascinating is that they contain a mystery until their skewed perspective is deciphered: The perspective rings true only when visualized through the eyes of Justice.

The buzz is bad 

I am reminded as well of the 1980 documentary  film “From Mao to Mozart” where Isaac Stern is seen concertizing with musicians all over China. He encounters performers ranging from 5 years of age through old age. Midway through the age groups, we actually hear a band-in-time in which musicians display even more amazing technical pyrotechnics, but whose musicality (i.e. emotional range of expression) is entirely absent. Even before the film announces what we are meant to hear, it becomes clear that this band of time coincides with the period of Chinese history we call the Cultural Revolution.

The important “take-away” here is that the manifestations of bad government include the actual sound track of a society. Recently social scientists have reported that a whole cohort of white men exists in the age range of 40-50 years, people who have not attended college, who are   killing themselves variously by tobacco, drink, or suicide. And we have a whole band of  murdered children.   As more men are released from prison, the numbers of women incarcerated has gone up. The growing intensity of anti-abortion regulation by state legislatures has increased exponentially starting in 2005 and peaking in 2011. Eventually social scientists will report on the increase of domestic violence in and outside the home as it affects its most defenseless victims: women, children and—yes—animals 

These are the significant barometers of a society which has lost its way. And these symptoms indicate what happens to people in an economic war zone, where the downward pressures on a society are such that its most marginalized people cry out in the words of Eric Gardner, who to survive economically was trying to sell loose cigarettes on the streets of Staten Island: “I Can’t Breathe.”


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