January 2011

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Happy New Year

I used to place an optimistic New Years' wish on the top page of the Spectacle, frequently quoting Thoreau: "The sun is but a morning star; there is more day to dawn." As the years pass, I have become a whole lot more pessimistic, to the point that I believe a new dark age is almost inevitable. So I can't wholeheartedly lead with the uplifting stuff any more. Nonetheless, I wish all of you a healthy and contented year.

Bipartisanship

Despite the deliberate Republican stonewalling of almost all Democratic initiatives, some legislation is mysteriously getting passed, like the reparations bill for black farmers. Congresscritters seem to pick mysterious random moments to forget faction.

Much later--the President has pulled off some kind of a phoenix-like act in putting across the Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal, the START treaty, and the unemployment extension. He seems to have gotten more done, with more Republican cooperation, in the lame duck month than he did in two years before. Strange.

Putin

The cables given out to the press by Wikileaks confirm what I have been saying about Russia: American diplomats perceive it as a gangster state, where you pay the government for protection rather than the Mafia because the government has more guns. Putin is thought to have achieved a huge personal fortune. It strikes me, however, that Putin, rather than becoming the tool of Russia's new billionaire class, set out to depose and rob them (undoubtedly creating his own tame billionaire class in the process). So Russia continues to be a country where the government is more dangerous than the billionaires, unlike America, where the opposite is true.

Privacy

There was a fascinating illustration of the new insults to privacy. Online marketers now, for example, are aware that someone, lets call her Susan, is doing a lot of Google searches on pregnancy topics. The marketers also know that another woman, Clare, is Susan's mother in law. The result: Not only Susan, but Clare, will start getting a lot of targeted ads about pregnancy. The punchline: Susan may not yet have told Clare she is pregnant. Pretty funny, huh?

Egyptian elections

In the last vote, Egypt tolerated the election to its parliament of more than eighty Islamic fundamentalists. In this one, none. According to commentators, it is surprising that the authorities did not rig the election more adeptly, tolerating a handful. On the other hand, the reason the powers that be tolerated so many Islamists last time was to warn the Bush administration that, if there were ever truly free elections, the Egyptian electorate would vote to end democracy. Its funny how that works.

It reminds me of something a Mexican friend told me twenty years ago: there are parts of Mexico where an American who was injured in a car accident can find a lawyer to sue the other driver, spend years litigating, go to a well-prepared trial--but will never, ever win. Similarly, it seems as if the world is full of places where we can spend money and energy promoting democracy, foster elections, send monitors, finance symbolic gestures of freedom and self determination like the recent Afghan kite festival I wrote about a couple months ago--but never actually see a democracy result.

The Catholic Church

The reading I have been doing about the middle ages has reminded me what a grotesque thing the Catholic Church turned into fairly early in its history: everything was for sale (including the papacy and plenary indulgences remitting guilt for crimes including murder); high Catholic officials routinely kept mistresses and lived luxuriously; opponents, or mere non-believers were murdered, via the Inquisition or religiously-induced progroms; Popes regularly promoted crusades, where knights and supporters gathered to rob and murder foreigners, not just Arabs (in the Fourth Crusade, the knights ended up sacking the Christian city of Constantinople on their way to the Holy Land).

I believe that Jesus existed and was a man of unusual moral comprehension and compassion; "do unto others" is a blockbuster of moral rule-making, simple and beautiful. the hierarchy of power, murder and luxury which based itself on his teachings had nothing to do with anything he taught. Dostoyevsky's "Grand Inquisitor" remains the most slashing expose of the idea that, had Christ returned, the Church would have had no room for him.

I think that the same thing happens whenever religious groups create structures which exercise any kind of temporal power over adherents. I don't see any evidence of God, and I therefore practice no religion. If I were to select one, it would probably be Zen, for I find works such as Herrigel's "Zen in the Art of Archery" to resonate with something in my character, to be beautiful and evocative. But the idea of putting myself, in any way, under the control of a temporal power hierarchy (arising out of a philosophy of resignation to fate and repudiation of desire, no less) is repugnant.

Seven hundred years after the medieval era transformed into the Renaissance, there is still a pope, dealing now with the widespread sexual molestation of children by priests. The estimate of the number of Catholics in the world seems to average about a billion, one in six people on earth, suggesting that you can fool large segments of the population all of the time.

Alabama

Alabama is apparently ethically challenged and the Republican-dominated state is considering a code which would avoid some of the more embarassing incidents which have occurred (indicted governors and legislators, buying of votes, etc).

Ironically, one problem is local political finance laws which allow loose "PAC to PAC" transfers, permitting the laundering of donations. Since the Supreme Court has decided, in its infinite wisdom, to allow such laundering at the federal level, what is the problem?

Senator Ensign

OK. He fucked his best friend's wife, then tried to make it all right by obtaining a well-compensated lobbying position for the cheated husband. Clearly violating "revolving door" rules in the process. Now, the Justice Department has announced he will not be indicted, probably because the feds are too tired and too defeated to care. Senator Ensigh skates away, in Republican-world, where the billionaires rule and can do whatever the fuck they want.

No more climate commitee

One of the first Republican acts in the new House will be to eliminate the Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, created in 2007. Who needs it? After all, the globe isn't really getting any warmer, or, if it is, God ordained it and there's nothing to be done anyway.

Cop cuts in Newark

Newark is laying off more than ten percent of its police force, and facing the prospect of returning to its horrendous murder and violent crime rate of twenty years ago. Why? Because people on Wall Street saw fit to gamble all of our net worth, jobs, and safety on mortgage backed securities. Wall Street plays and the suffering spreads out through the world, in concentric circles.

Arizona Transplants

People in Arizona who need transplants and, in at least one case, had donor organs identified and dates for surgery, have been given death sentences by last minute changes to Medicaid eligibility rules. These are NOT decisions by the predicted and completely fictional "Obamacare death panels", but cuts to Medicaid made by the Republican legislature and governor, trying to save money by throwing people overboard. Should transplants always be paid for at public expense? There's a discussion there. Are the Republicans who are trying to torpedo health care reform lying sacks of shit who make intemperate and fantastic accusations against the other side, and then obliviously legislate the death of their own constitutents in the most grossly obvious fashion? Yes. The contrast between what Republicans say, and what they do, is fast becoming the dictionary example of irony.

Another Internet bubble?

Per the Times for December 4, Internet companies without a profit model are again receiving billion dollar valuations. Now that I've figured out that the history and progress of Wall Street consistrs entirely of bubbles and slumps, its clear what's happening: in a slump after the violent deflation of the mortgage bubble, Wall Street is seeking its next bubble.

Wikileaks

You find out the real nature of people in an emergency, and most fail the test. Its been fascinating watching companies like Amazon back away from Wikileaks. Amazon cancelled its hosting contract, claiming that Wikileaks was violating the terms of service ("I'm shocked, shocked, to discover there is gambling in this establishment!") Then the company's domain name service also withdrew itrs support, saying pressure on the site was too high. Paypal stopped accepting donations for the organization. Tableau Software, which provided graphical representations of data to Wikileaks, also withdrew its services. At the same time, hosts of hackers, some government-hired, some self appointed, are trying to bring the site down. As I write, www.wikileaks.org is offline, and several alternate URL's and its basic domain number, http://213.251.145.96/ are timing out. (I was able to access the latter at 4:58 a.m.)

Its time to bring back something we used to do more often in the '90's: create volunteer mirrors. Once or twice, I hosted material here on the Spectacle that was under attack or threat in other countries, and I would be happy to do so again. Wikileaks should look for a thousand sites like mine, which are each willing to host a few hundred cables. Distribute the data, keep moving it around, to avoid the hounds. It would be fun and would revitalize an old adage which hasn't been completely true in a long time: "The Internet interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it."

The driving of a major, award-winning, much covered organization off of the web by angry governments is virtually unique in our time. The only other example I remember was anon.penet.fi, the anonymous remailer site shut down in 1996.

Later-- Its been reported that hundreds of Wikileaks mirrors have been created.

Doctors and class warfare

One of us went for a routine doctor visit this week and came home with an innocuous-looking brochure entitled "What Does Health Reform Mean for You". The well made brochure has photographs of purported ordinary people on the cover, mainly African American, and is distributed by something blandly named "National Center for Policy Analysis". Look inside and find the following:

Most employers will have to reduce what they pay in wages and other benefits in order to afford the required coverage....The extra burden on employers could cost as many as 700,000 jobs by 2019.

No sources are cited. A quick Google search establishes that NCPA is a conservative "think tank", which believes health care reform should be repealed in its entirety and also denies the science of global warming. Sources of its funding include insurance companies and ExxonMobil.

This reminds me that I have heard a few doctors make horrendous remarks about health care reform and the President. My parents were doctors, and liberal Democrats, and I remember my mother saying near the end of her life that only a single payer system, like Canada's, would heal the ills of American health care, which she knew first hand.

In an emergency room a few weeks ago, I listened to a doctor interminably tell a nurse, with no sense of irony, about the $5,000 round the world ticket he planned to buy, and the cities he would stop in along the way. I haven't been able to vacation outside this country in more than ten years; have you?

There is a memorable moment in the Michael Moore documentary, "Sicko", when he interviews a British doctor working for National Health Service who owns a million dollar house and two cars. Moore asks what he thinks he would have if he lived in the United States. Five houses, is the answer.

A young, ideological libertarian once told me that National Health enslaves doctors, not letting them earn what they are worth. I replied that national armies therefore enslave soldiers, who would undoubtedly make out much better if individually hired at negotiated rates by the government.

If we were founding a brand new planet, I would argue just as hard as I could in our founder's debate, that my chances of dying broke of heart disease or cancer, without adequate coverage, are much greater than that of dying of a terrorist bomb. Therefore, I regard a government role in health care as more significant for my protection than the army or Homeland Security (though I also believe these are important).

Meanwhile, a Dr. Midei who practiced at a Baltimore hospital is thought to have inserted unnecessary stents in hundreds of patients, at a cost to Medicare and private insurers of $6.6 million. Another doctor at the Cleveland Clinic, who treats the consequences of unneeded stents, told the Times (December 6):

What was going on in Baltimore is going on right now in every city in America....We're spending a fortune as a country on procedures that people don't need.

The President's Tax Deal

He is following the Bill Clinton playbook: lose the Congress, become a Republican.

The Republican "Plan" for health care

Most Republican rhetoric has concentrated on convincing voters that "forcing" them to have health coverage is analogous to rape, or taking away their guns. However, at quieter moments, the Republicans make a parallel assertion, that the Democratic plan (to steal a phrase from Count Talleyrand) is not only a crime, but a mistake. The Republicans effectively morph from presenting health care reform as something terrible which should not be done to something useful which is being done expensively and ineffectively. Of course, the latter assertion (probably intended to win the votes of people not fooled by the first claim) implies that the Republicans can handle health care better. The extreme dishonesty and hypocrisy of the position, however, is made clear by the further assertion that we can't amend the health care law to fix it, but must repeal it to replace it with something better at an unspecified time. Of course, this is an absurd assertion. It is hard to imagine a piece of legislation so bad that it can't be fixed. The tax code is a highly irrational and farkled set of dense and confusing laws and regulations, but if we ever really decided to fix it, we wouldn't simply repeal it and try to run the country without tax revenue for some unknown period of time. We would have its replacement already written, ready to be adopted one minute after the irreparable mess of the prior code was repealed. The truth is that Republicans plan to "fix" health care the same way they did after defeating the Clinton proposal in the early '90's: by preserving every detail of the status quo, so that instead of one in six uninsured Americans today, we can have half the country without coverage in fifty years.

Wikipedia

I have been spending a lot of time recently editing Wikipedia. In contrast to Craigslist, of which I wrote recently that it is a failed Internet community, Wikipedia is a much more successful one. On Craigslist, as few as three anonymous users, without leaving any kind of electronic record of their IP numbers let alone identity, can delete any post (reputedly its frequently done by one user coming in from multiple addresses). On Wikipedia, you are encouraged to register, and if you don't, your IP number is placed in the public record, giving some degree of accountability. More importantly, Wikipedia has a loose hierarchy of trusted volunteers, who establish their credibility through years of participation in editing and dispute resolution, who are available to help reach consensus and assure that articles meet Wikipedia standards. Due to the vagaries of human nature,Wikipedia has not completely avoided becoming an ideological battleground (edit wars on articles dealing with Israel and Palestinians, pro and contra attitudes on Sarah Palin, etc.) Its done a much better job of ensuring that everything is done in the light, and that true, accountable, reviewable community standards evolve, than Craigslist. Craig Newmark himself gives many speeches lauding the online "community", but the reality of his site is that any anonymous troll can claim to act for such a "community", deleting anything he personally decides to, with no public explanation.

Valerie Plame

I see I never personally weighed in on the outing of Valerie Plame's identity as a covert CIA operative. This was one of the disgusting moments in the Bush administration, and happened as the wagons were circled regarding the (non)existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Plame's husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, had written a NY Times editorial contradicting the claim in Bush's State of the Union address, that Saddam had tried to buy "yellowcake" uranium from Niger. Wilson had been sent to Niger by the CIA, and had concluded there was no truth to the story. His editorial led to administration attempts to discredit him, which included disclosing his wife's name to reporters and effectively ending her career. In reading over contemporaneous accounts and some testimony which has come to light since, it is not clear to me that the Bush officials bandying her name about were aware she was a covert, rather than a public, CIA employee. However, it is evident that in addition to Scooter Libby, who was punished, both Karl Rove and Richard Armitage, a state department official, disclosed or confirmed her name to reporters, without consequences. The theory that Scooter Libby was "served up" by the administration, or asked to take the fall, is rather persuasive, and also a familiar echo of Watergate. President Bush commuted Libby's sentence but (making Dick Cheney furious) declined to pardon him or remit the quarter million dollar fine Libby supposedly paid from his own pocket. In the meantime, Plame and Wilson have undergone almost nonstop libel from the right wing. The saddest element of the story was that Plame was a trusted, valuable CIA employee concentrating on nonproliferation issues, whose career came to an end for no good reason.

North Korea bad behavior

I was intrigued by the trope which echoed through the papers for a few days that the North Korean shelling of a Southern island was the first time since the 1950 war that the North had killed civilians.

An article in the Guardian fills in the rest of the picture: 1968, a squad sent by the North to kill the president of the south missed him, but murdered numerous civilians; in a second attempt in 1974, they killed the first lady; in 1983, an assassination attempt on another president visiting Burma, killed twenty people including four cabinet ministers; in 1987, the North blew up a civilian airliner, with 115 casualties; in 2008, a northern soldier shot a southern tourist dead in a resort on the countries' borders.

Oops. This says a lot about journalistic laziness, but also about the nature of international politics, in which a sanctioned "rogue" country can delberately use the murder of civilians to extract security and food concessions from the rest of the world. The media may have forgotten so much murder because our governments also have.

Irish horses

A story in the December 21st Times reveals that between 10,000 and 100,000 horses have been abandoned by owners in Ireland who can't afford to care for them any more. Many are starving and must be put down. This is a particularly vivid illustration of the worldwide mayhem done by the people who used all of our money to trade mortgage backed securities and related derivatives. Some of them made and apparently have kept large amounts of money, betting the rest of us would go down the tubes, and are busy at work on the next bubble. The horses (not to mention people losing jobs, houses and health insurance) are not even regarded as collateral damage. It as if we are being urged, even required, to disregard everything we know about cause and effect, and to regard as "an act of God" what we know to be an act of violence.

Don't Ask Don't Tell

I salute the end of this extremely bigoted and destructive policy, and recognition of the right of gay people to serve in the military. There have ben a flurry of macho soldiers, mainly marines, claiming not to be personally prejudiced, but suggesting gay men serve behind the lines like women, on the theory they are too gentle or too emotionally fragile to kill people. This is pretty amusing. Recommended reading: the Wikipedia article on the sacred band of Thebes. Or try spending an evening in a gay bar and notice how many of the people there are a. just like you and b. not detectable by you as gay. The final proof of the falsity of the proposition may arrive when stone killers who are existing, successful and violent members of special forces are free to confess their sexual orientation.

Disaster and forgettery

I may someday write a lead Spectacle article about the drive to revise our own history to make it less random, dangerous, frightening, brutal and violent. Most life long New Yorkers have little idea that people held slaves here, or that black people were murdered by mobs in rioting against the Civil War draft, or that New York in the 1800's was dominated by gangs that (in a moment amusingly portrayed in the Martin Scorsese movie) even deployed rival teams of firefighters who tried to kill each other for the right to battle particular blazes.

People vaguely remember the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, because of its implication for unionization, feminism and the like. But almost no New Yorker knows anything about the 1904 General Slocum disaster, in which more than a thousand people died and an entire German-American neighborhood was decimated when an excursion ship burned in the East River.

Ernst Renan said that nations are formed based on what they remember, but also what they forget together. New Yorkers have their own particular beautiful style of forgettery.

New planning for nuclear war

In June, the Obama administration released a 130 page document entitled "Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation", hammering home the simple proposition that more people will live if most of the population hides in basements, than if we all take to the streets and flee.

Talk about the cyclical nature of history, rather than its linearity--when I was six years old, around the time of the Cuban missile crisis, I began having terrible nightmares in which I watched an A-bomb (usually a coffin attached to a parachute) descend slowly out of the sky.

Back then, we were worried about the Soviets. Today, we fear Al Qaeda and existing and would-be nuclear powers of unparalleled irrationality, such as North Korea and Iran.

I remember an entertaining, horrifying full page comic in the "East Village Other", circa 1970, entitled, "What to do in fifteen minutes while waiting for the end" which reviewed choices like, "Whip off a quickie" and "decide to grow a beard." There was also a popular poster which mirrored the "duck and cover" instructions, then diverged: "Place head between legs....Kiss your ass goodbye".

New York City software project

I work pretty hard never to be surprised any more, but am really baffled that in the administration of business tycoon Mike Bloomberg, the city managed to spend $80 million on a relatively simple timekeeping software application which was supposed to cost about $8 million or so (which is already expensive for timesheets). Now, some of the vendor personnel have been arrested for fraud. Was nobody minding the store?

Earmarkery

How delightful; that the same Republicans bloviating about earmarks have inserted their own in the spending bill. According to the Times for December 16, Republican senate leader Mitch McConnell "requested nearly $86.1 million for Kentucky, including $18 million for a railroad upgrade at Fort Knox, $1 million to build a Kentucky Blood Bank Center, and $1 million for waterfront development in Paducah."

Bully

I have always been fascinated by the story of Ken McElroy, the bully in Skidmore, Mo. who shot and beat other citizens with seeming impunity, until he himself was shot to death in front of sixty witnesses. No-one would testify, and thirty years later, nobody has ever been indicted for the crime.

Civilization is a thin veneer. We have a complacency drilled into us, to be as sheeplike as possible, regardless of whether the law and government are performing the function for which they were designed. The people of Skidmore took the law into their own hands because the justice system failed to protect them against McElroy. The danger is always in the self determination. In this case, nobody (apparently even the prosecutors) blamed them. In another situation, they might have been dead wrong. Most of the responsibility for self-help gone wrong falls on the individuals, but a substantial chunk also goes to governments that fail to act carefully and fairly.

Reprinted without comment

From the Times for December 17:

But the accord [cutting taxes and extending unemployment] also showed that policy-makers remain locked in an unsustainable cycle of cutting taxes and raising spending that has proven politically palatable in the short term but could threaten the nationís fiscal stability in years ahead.