Archive for March, 2015

Gay marriage and religious liberty

March 31, 2015

Marriage is both a legal contract and a religious sacrament.   The dual nature of marriage makes it a more complicated question than, say, voting rights.

same sex weddingNobody should be denied access to the benefits of the marriage contract based on race, nationality, religion or sexual orientation.  Gay married couples should have the same rights as any other couples in regard to pensions, insurance, credit, hospital visitation or anything else.

Neither should anybody be required to support or participate in a religious ritual they don’t believe in, for the same reason that nobody should be required to recite the Lord’s Prayer in a public ceremony if they don’t believe in it.

For example, an independent photographer who believes on religious grounds that marriage is only between a man and a woman should not be required to take photographs as a gay wedding.

I think that religious institutions should be free to set their own internal rules of moral conduct, including sexual conduct.

On the other hand, I do not believe that owners of a business corporation have the right to impose their private moral beliefs on employees, or to use religion as an excuse for depriving employees of their legal rights, as was done by the Hobby Lobby corporation.

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Freedom of contract or corporate Big Brother?

March 30, 2015

Freedom of contract begins where equality of bargaining power begins.
    ==Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

No contract that requires someone to give up a basic right should be legally enforceable.

A contract to sell yourself into slavery is not legally enforceable.  A yellow-dog contract, which requires you to give up your right to join a labor union, is not legally enforceable.

So what about Amazon’s practice of requiring even temporary employees to sign 18-month non-compete agreements as a condition for employment?

Noncompete_CartoonThe Verge obtained a copy of the contract that forbids Amazon workers, for 18 months after leaving Amazon employment, from going to work for any company that “directly or indirectly” supplies any good or service they helped support at Amazon.

Such non-complete agreements are required even for temporary warehouse workers, who typically work for three months during the Christmas season, The Verge reported.  In return for that short stint of work, they’re asked to give up any chance of working for an Amazon competitor—and, since Amazon is “the everything store,” that would mean virtually any job in retailing anywhere in the world.

In other words, Amazon workers are asked to give up a basic right that they supposedly have in a free enterprise system—the right to freely seek work from any employer willing to hire them.

A study, based on an on-line survey of 10,000 American workers conducted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne and the University of Michigan, determined that 12 percent are covered by non-complete agreements,  The Verge reported.  This includes 9 percent of warehouse and transportation workers.

Evan Starr, co-author of the study, told The Verge that the percentages are probably underestimated because workers sign non-compete agreements without realizing what they’ve signed.

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Strong opposition to Darwinism in Israel

March 30, 2015

evolution-views

The United States is exceptional among economically-advanced nations in the large percentage of the population who reject Darwin’s theory of evolution.

But the USA has a partner in this respect.  A large percentage of the population of Israel also reject evolution.

us_il_evo3

Religious fundamentalists—that is, those who believe that Scripture should be taken as literal fact as well as teaching a lesson—are strong in both countries, and are politically allied to right-wing nationalists.

Right-wing nationalism is not inherent in religious fundamentalism.  The Old Order Amish are fundamentalists.  But when fundamentalism and nationalism are allied, they make a powerful and dangerous force, because the nation and its military are treated as if they are sacred.

The Likud Party in Israel is close to the Republican Party in the United States, in spite of the fact that most Jewish citizens in the United States support the Democrats.

I believe that is because the Likud supporters and Republicans have an affinity in their leaders’ assertive nationalism and in their appeal to religious fundamentalist voters.   The majority of Jewish people in the United States, on the other hand, are liberal humanitarians who accept the conclusions of modern science.

LINKS

In Israel, Will Creationists Reign? by Josh Rosenau for the Science League of America.

A Shande Vor De Goyim: Israelis Are as Creationist as U.S. Non-Jews by Josh Rosenau for the Science League of America.

Israeli politicians views on evolution: more waffling and denialism by Jerry Coyne.

The three stages of truth

March 30, 2015

All truth passes through three stages.
First, it is ridiculed.
Second, it is violently opposed.
Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

==Arthur Schopenhauer (German philosopher, 1788-1860)

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Singapore: Lee Kuan Yew’s authoritarian utopia

March 30, 2015
Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)

Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)

Lee Kuan Yew, who died last Monday, was one of the world’s most successful rulers.  I am uneasy about his success because it was based on rejection of  American-type ideas of democracy and individual freedom.

Under Lee’s 50 years of formal and informal rule, Singapore went from being a Third World backwater with no natural resources to a gleaming technopolis and the world’s third major financial hub after London and New York. GDP per capita increased by several orders of magnitude.

It refuted the modern idea, or rather dogma, that democracy and individual liberties are indispensable components of economic modernization.

A clever foreign policy enabled great relations with both the US and China. Visible corruption is all but non-existent; the story might be apocryphal, but apparently Lee once even went as far as allowing the execution of a friend for stealing from the state.

via The Unz Review.

Lee was a proponent of so-called “Asian values” of hierarchy, obedience and discipline, which I don’t think of as being uniquely Asian.  They could just as easily be called Prussian values.

When I was younger, I thought American ideals were validated by the fact that, in the USA, the common people had a better life than they did almost anywhere else, and that things worked better than they did almost anywhere else.  Now, as I look at the dysfunctional American government and predatory American corporations, I have to wonder.

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Who will benefit from the TPP?

March 30, 2015

Senator Elizabeth Warren pointed out the worst aspect of the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, which is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement.

ISDS allows investors (but not workers, consumers or citizens) to appeal a nation’s laws and regulations to a private corporate-friendly arbitration panel.   Such panels already exist under NAFTA and other trade treaties.  As Warren pointed out:

The use of ISDS is on the rise around the globe. From 1959 to 2002, there were fewer than 100 ISDS claims worldwide. But in 2012 alone, there were 58 cases.

Recent cases include a French company that sued Egypt because Egypt raised its minimum wage, a Swedish company that sued Germany because Germany decided to phase out nuclear power after Japan’s Fukushima disaster, and a Dutch company that sued the Czech Republic because the Czechs didn’t bail out a bank that the company partially owned.

U.S. corporations have also gotten in on the action: Philip Morris is trying to use ISDS to stop Uruguay from implementing new tobacco regulations intended to cut smoking rates.

via The Washington Post.

The Trans Pacific Partnership is a proposed trade agreement between the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Australia and seven other Pacific Rim countries—not including China.

Only a couple of its provisions have to do with reducing trade barriers among member nations.  Most have to do with imposing uniform rules about intellectual property, corporate regulation and other topics.

What’s in the TPP drafts is a secret.  Jim Hightower noted that the Obama administration has imposed a gag order on members of Congress who’ve been briefed on its contents, and Congress has submitted to this.

But thanks to Wikileaks, we know that the TPP negotiators intend to enact a strong USDS rule.

Of course if the administration drops USDS at the last minute, that doesn’t mean that the rest of the TPP is okay.  Congress at the very least should be given all the time it needs to analyze this complex and suspect agreement before it votes.

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Freedom, happiness and love

March 29, 2015

quote-doing-what-you-love-is-freedom1

A short quiz on United States geography

March 28, 2015

What is:

1.  The northernmost American state?

2.  The easternmost American state?

3.  The westernmost American state?

4.  The southernmost American state?

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Cannabis is the world’s most profitable crop

March 28, 2015
Click to enlarge.

Double click to enlarge.

Source: Information Is Beautiful

Is the supernatural as real as the natural?

March 28, 2015

2015-03-03-is-the-supernatural-as-real-as-the-naturalSource: Candorville

A billion here, a billion there: it adds up

March 28, 2015
Double click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Source: Information Is Beautiful

I have trouble visualizing any number that is too big to count.  As W. Edwards Deming once said, no number is meaningful except when compared with another number.

If you click on the link, you’ll see a larger graphic with more information.

Hiroshima’s Shadow 3: the revisionist argument

March 27, 2015

NYTnaga.su.manchuria

Revisionist historians deny that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed in order to save American lives.

They say the Japanese high command was ready to surrender before the bombs were dropped and that, in any case, an invasion of Japan would not have caused the 1 million Allied casualties or 500,000 deaths that President Truman later claimed were averted.

The real reason for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they say, is that American leaders thought the existence of the bomb and the U.S. willingness to use it would strengthen the American position in relation to the Soviet Union.

Hiroshima's Shadow 0_The essay collection, Hiroshima’s Shadow, which I am now reading, provides the documentary evidence for these arguments.  The contributors include historians who know much more about this subject than I do, but historians disagree.

I think the revisionist arguments not as false, but as inconclusive.   Yet I draw the same moral for our own time as they do about the need for disarmament and the risks of atomic diplomacy.

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Were the Japanese really willing to surrender before Hiroshima was bombed?

It is a fact that Japan’s military and civilian leaders both regarded the Pacific War as lost, and they hoped to negotiate a peace on the best terms that they could.  The minimum terms, especially for the military, were that the Japanese retain control of the home islands and that Emperor of Japan continue to rule.

The Allies included “unconditional surrender” of the Japanese armed forces and an Allied occupation of Japan.   The Japanese were promised that the Allies did not intend to annihilate them and that they would eventually have a government of their own choosing.  This implies that they could have had an Emperor if they wanted one, but nothing specific was said.

The question in my mind is just what was meant by the Emperor continuing to  rule.   Did it mean that the Emperor would remain in place as a powerless constitutional monarch, as eventually happened?

Or did it mean that the Emperor would rule, not by popular mandate, but by divine right as a descendent of the sun goddess and an object of worship in the state Shinto religion, with the military exercising power in his name?  This would have meant a perpetuation of the totalitarian that had led to war in the first place.

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U.S. weapons go AWOL

March 27, 2015

Since 2007, the U.S. government has been sending sending military supplies to Yemen to help the government fight a rebellion there.   The Yemen government is collapsing, and the U.S. government has lost track of some of those supplies, including these.

U.S.-military-hardware-AWOL-in-Yemen-The-Washington-PostAs Peter Van Buren asked, how do you misplace a patrol boat?

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David Graeber on social class and virtue

March 26, 2015

The ultimate bourgeois virtue is thrift, and the ultimate working-class virtue is solidarity

via David Graeber | The Guardian.

In hard times, it is good to have savings, but it is important to have friends.

Hiroshima’s Shadow 2: the key turning point

March 25, 2015

SignatureFacilitiesMapLg1

The great fear of General Leslie R. Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, was that World War Two would end before atomic bombs were ready to use.

He would would have been pilloried for having presided over a $2 billion boondoggle that used up valuable military resources with no visible result.

Hiroshima's Shadow 0_Stanley Goldberg, a contributor to Hiroshima’s Shadow, wrote that it was Groves, not President Truman or General Marshall, who gave the order to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We’re living with the consequences of the Hiroshima bombing to this day, and I’m reading Hiroshima’s Shadow to try to understand the reasons.

The reason Hiroshima was followed by a second bomb on Nagasaki, according to Goldberg, is that Groves wanted to use both a uranium bomb and a plutonium bomb.

This justified the whole Manhattan Project, not only the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, facility where the uranium bomb was made, but the one at Hanford, Washington, where the plutonium bomb was made.

I’ve long thought that, given the prior U.S. decision to bomb the cities of Germany and Japan, and given the availability of atomic bombs, the argument for using the new weapon was almost irresistible.

The real key turning points were the decision to develop an atomic bomb in the first place, which could easily not have been made, and the project’s success, which also might not have happened.

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California’s water and the reality principle

March 25, 2015

Drought map USASource: Business Insider.

Bertrand Russell once wrote that democracies would always triumph in the long run over dictatorships because dictators had the power to ignore unwelcome facts while democracies did not, thanks to contested elections, freedom of the press and the loyal opposition.

In short, although Russell did not use that word, democracies had a better system of feedback.

I hope this is true, but I wonder about American democracy’s ability to face reality, as I look at the lack of U.S. response to global climate change, the failure to keep the nation’s physical infrastructure in good repair, the erosion of civil liberties and the continuation of failed interventionist policies in the Middle East.

Drought-2-650x435The California water crisis is an example of what I mean.  During the past few weeks, journalists have reported that California has only a year’s supply of water in its reservoirs at current rates of use.

That’s exaggerated, because the supply can be stretched out by means of rationing and pricing schemes, but most of California, left to its natural state, would be a desert, and that is a real possibility.

California voters last year approved a bond issue to pay for long-range solutions, such as large-scale water recycling and ocean water desalinization from the ocean.  But these will take years to implement.

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The corporate model in higher education

March 25, 2015

college.spending

Source: Pacific Standard.

The chart above illustrates the dominance of the for-profit corporation as a model for American higher education.  As with corporations, the people who do the actual teaching are increasingly ill-paid and insecure, while the people whose job it is to cultivate relationships with politicians and corporate executives, solicit contributions and grants and polish the institution’s image do better and better.

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The Capitalist Takeover of Higher Education by Robert Abele for Counterpunch.

How Colleges Misspend Your Tuition Money by Ted Scheinman for Pacific Standard.

Adjuncts Struggle to Unionize at a Liberal College by Michelle M. Tokarczyk for Working-Class Perspectives.  [Hat tip to Bill Harvey]

Hiroshima’s Shadow: crossing a moral line

March 24, 2015
Click to enlarge.

Double click to enlarge.

Source: Professor Olsen@large

Seventy years after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we live under the possibility that nuclear weapons will be used again—possibly but not necessarily by us Americans or on us Americans.

I’m trying to understand the reasons for Hiroshima and Nagasaki by reading Hiroshima’s Shadow:Writing on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy, edited by Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz, which was recommended by my e-mail pen pal Tanweer Akram of the Bertrand Russell Society.

The book was published after the Smithsonian Institution in 1995 canceled an exhibit about the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, after the American Legion and the Air Force Association objected to inclusion of material questioning the necessity of the bombing.

It is plain to me as I read this book that  the decision to use the atomic bomb mainly reflected the momentum of two earlier decisions:

  • The decision to wage war against civilians by bombing enemy cities from the air.
  • The decision to develop atomic weapons for that purpose.

Hiroshima's Shadow 0_After these choices were made, I think the decision to bomb was, if not inevitable, the path of least resistance.   Once the original bright moral line was crossed, the only issue was whether to do the same thing by means of a new and more horrible method.

I think the consequences of these decisions would still be with us even if the tragedy of Hiroshima could have been avoided.

Americans and Britons once were shocked by the German Zeppelin raids on London during World War Two, the destruction of the village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, the bombing of Shanghai by the Japanese and of the bombing of Rotterdam and Warsaw by the Germans.

But we soon came to accept the fire-bombing of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo, first as regrettable necessities and then as the new normal.

That new normal is still with us.  Bombing is still the basic American military tactic, even when it doesn’t work.  When your only tool is air power, everything looks like a target.

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Mexican drug cartels: the ISIS next door

March 24, 2015

The Mexican drug cartels are just as vicious as the Islamic State and, from the standpoint of Americans, more dangerous.   They behead people, they torture and mutilate people and they have more power than the government over vast territories.  The main difference is that the drug lords worship money.

120814_mexicographic_1The United States government has waged a “war on drugs” by the same means by which it has waged a “war on terror,” by treating it as a military problem instead of a crime problem, and with the same failed result.

American policy has made the drug problem worse, just as it made terrorism worse.

First drug prohibition created a market for the drug cartels, just as, in an earlier era, alcohol prohibition created a market for organized crime in American cities.

Then the U.S. encouraged the Mexican government to wage a military campaign, plus torture and warrant-less detention, against the drug-lords, which escalated the conflict and the violence but did not win.

What the drug gangs are doing is so horrible that I might be tempted to think this was all right, if it was successful.  But it wasn’t.  It just meant that Mexicans are terrorized by their own government as well as the criminals.

The Drug Enforcement Administration took to working with some of the drug cartels against others.   The “Fast and Furious” fiasco, in which the DEA actually supplied guns to a drug gang and then lost track of them, was part of this.

But unlike with ISIS, we Americans do not have the option of walking away from the problem.  The power of the Mexican drug cartels reaches deep into the United States.

Merely liberalizing U.S. drug laws or winding U.S. operations in Mexico will not solve the problem, any more than ending alcohol prohibition solved the problem of organized crime in the USA, or U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan or Iraq will solve the many problems of those countries.

I hope that a smarter person than me can see a way out.

LINK

Can You Say “Blowback” in Spanish? by Rebecca Gordon for TomDispatch.   My post is based largely on this excellent, in depth summary of the situation.

Mexican drug cartels are worse than ISIL by Musa al-Gharbi for Al Jazeera.

Why Mexicans are saying they’ve had enough by Ioan Grillo and Simon Kholsa for the Tucson Sentinel.

 

How to give American workers a pay raise

March 24, 2015

incomegrowthdistributionThe majority of American workers are getting less and less benefit from the growth of the American economy.

The pro-labor Economic Policy Institute notes that, since 1979, the U.S. economy (gross domestic product) has grown by 149 percent and productivity has grown 64 percent, but actual wages of most American workers, adjusted for inflation, are flat or declining.

Recently the EPI published an 11-point program for boosting American wages.   Here it is, with my comments.

1. Raise the minimum wage.

2. Update overtime pay rules.

3. Strengthen collective bargaining rights.

Stronger labor unions give workers power over their wages and working conditions independently of laws and regulations.  This is the most important change and a key to all the other changes.

4. Regularize undocumented workers.

Hiring unauthorized immigrants and relocating business activities to low-wage countries are two ways of doing the same thing—escaping the requirements of American labor law.   It is almost like competing with slave labor.  Since it is not feasible to deport the millions of unauthorized immigrants now in the United States, the only choice is to bring them under protection of the law.

5. Provide earned sick leave and paid family leave.

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Global warming skipped Washington this winter

March 23, 2015

temp

The world is getting warmer, but not everywhere at the same time.  I hope our decision-makers in Washington, D.C., can accept the fact that the world as a whole is warming up even though it’s cold where they live.

LINK

This has been the warmest winter on record, except in the most politically important part of the world by Philip Bump for the Washington Post.   [Hat tip to Barry Ritholtz.]

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The ‘irresponsibility’ of the poor

March 23, 2015

Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed and well-fed.
                ==Herman Melville (1819-1892)

My circle of friends are mostly white, college-educated, middle-class people who call ourselves liberals.

Liberals are supposed to be the ones who make excuses for the short-comings of minorities and poor people, but this isn’t true of my friends.

poverty-and-marriage-650Instead, whenever the conversation gets around to social problems, the consensus is that poverty is bad and racial discrimination is bad, but “lack of personal responsibility” is a big thing, too.  Bill Cosby’s name comes up a lot.

I’m uncomfortable with these conversations because, on the one hand, there’s a certain amount of truth in what’s being said, and, on the other hand, I don’t think I have standing to make harsh moral judgments about people who face difficulties so much worse than anything I ever did.

There are people who are completely messed up—unable to hold a steady job, uninterested in marriage and family responsibilities—who wouldn’t be able to make it in the best of societies.

On the other hand, the few poor people I know aren’t like that.  They are people who are struggling bravely against great odds.

There’s one young black man I know.  He was convicted as a teenager for robbing a drug dealer.  For that one mistake, he basically has no future, even though he is hard-working, intelligent and well-mannered.

On the other hand, I have a distant relative by marriage, a middle-aged white man who was in trouble all through his teenage years, smoking dope and getting into trouble, and constantly being bailed out by his father.  He turned himself around, and is now a responsible adult with a good job.

It is fine with me that he got all these second chances.  But if his father had been poor, or black, or both, he wouldn’t have gotten them.

And then there are the young black men who, after each big snowstorm, come walking down the middle of my street with snow shovels across their shoulders, asking if I need my driveway shoveled out.  I usually hire them even when I don’t strictly need it.

They’re all polite and hard-working.  Maybe these qualities will be enough to raise themselves into the middle class.  But if the number of people with middle class incomes continues to shrink, the only way they’ll be able to do it is by bumping somebody else out of the middle class.

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Our dying American democracy

March 23, 2015

Is the United States still a democracy?  Tom Engelhardt pointed out how the USA is evolving into something different.

1.  1% ElectionsPresidential election campaigns no longer begin with the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries.   They begin with presidential candidates being screened by wealthy donors who determine which of them will have the wherewithal to run.

2.  The Privatization of the State (or the U.S. as a Prospective Third World Country).   “Crony capitalism” was a word that we Americans coined to describe the system in poor countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.  But now our own country public services are being handed over to well-connected individuals to be operated for private profit.

3.  The De-Legitimization of Congress and the PresidencyThe democratic branches of government are held in low esteem, and with reason.   Recent Presidents and congressional leaders have abdicated their Constitutional responsibilities.

4.  The Rise of the National Security State as the Fourth Branch of Government.  Secret branches of government decide national policy and expand their own powers without authorization of law.  People who reveal what they’re doing are subject to prosecution.

5.  The Demobilization of the American People.   Most Americans recognize that their government doesn’t really represent them.  But unlike in earlier eras, this discontent has not produced any mass movement to do something about it—at least not yet.

LINK

The New American Order: the 1% Elections, the Privatization of the State, a Fourth Branch of Government and the Demobilization of “We the People” by Tom Engelhardt for TomDispatch (via the Unz Review).   A powerful and accurate indictment.   My summary doesn’t do it justice.  I recommend you read the whole thing.

 

Did the world’s smartest woman make a mistake?

March 22, 2015

Marilyn vos Savant, who was briefly listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the highest I.Q. on record, has a column in Parade magazine in which she answers readers’ questions.

ask.marilyn_In September 1990, Marilyn vos Savant devoted one of her columns to a reader’s question, which presented a variation of the Monty Hall Problem:

“Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors. Behind one door is a car, behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say #1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say #3, which has a goat. He says to you, “Do you want to pick door #2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice of doors?”

“Yes; you should switch,” she replied. “The first door has a 1/3 chance of winning, but the second door has a 2/3 chance.”

via pricenomics.

She received thousands of answers, almost all much like this one.

mansplain

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Illustrating Alice in Wonderland: a gallery

March 21, 2015
alicedali2

Salvador Dali (1969)

My e-mail pen pal Jack Clontz sent me a link to a wonderful gallery of illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  The pictures capture the basic strangeness of the book.  I have copied samples of the pictures, which you can look at below.  For the full gallery, click on The Best Illustrations from 150 Years of Alice in Wonderland by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings.

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