February 2010

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Rags and Bones


by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net



Wake up call


            In my hometown, long-Democratic Easthampton, Republicans took over at the last election. In Massachusetts, where Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one, the woman tapped to replace Senator Kennedy is running scared that a previously unknown Republican candidate may  defeat her. In the South, at least one Democrat has defected to the Republican party.


            An idiot President ended his eight years with a whimper in January, 2008. The litany of malfeasance, mistakes and disasters was endless and multifarious: The use of torture.  The invasion of Iraq on falsified evidence. The ridiculously inept conduct of the war with maximum (but unreliable) technology and minimal personnel. The vindictive outing of a CIA employee for political reasons. The failure to capture bin Laden at Tora Bora. The firing of perfectly competent U.S. Attorneys because they weren't conservative enough. The attack on social security. Katrina. The creation of Guantanamo.


            He was replaced by an intelligent and capable man, who despite extreme provocation and challenges has not bungled anything, has responded with calm and care in proposing solutions to our problems. Who has been met at every stage with a devastatingly successful propaganda effort which has succeeded in converting millions to the idea that the American republic is ending and socialism is at hand.


            This is apparently a far more conservative country than it was in 1932. And one with less common sense. People without (or with inadequate) health insurance are taking to the streets to demonstrate against health insurance. The unemployed are demonstrating against employment, and people losing their houses are agitating against mortgage reform. Last year, I saw all of this first hand in Lee County, Florida.


            I wonder whether health care—something clearly broken, which desperately needs fixing—is the swamp in which any administration which attacks it inevitably gets mired. Whether Obama taking it on after Clinton failed, is like Hitler invading Russia despite Napoleon's example.


            The only thing I can fault Obama for, at this very early stage in his Presidency, is a failure to provide charismatic leadership. To go on the counter-attack, the way Roosevelt would have. To create sound bites and rhetoric to counter the Republican litany. You know something is wrong when they can call you a socialist, but no-one is accusing them in return of being reactionary, let alone fascist in tendency.


For my take on Scott Brown's victory, see the lead article this month, “What's Going Wrong”.




            Imagine living in a third world country which is desperately poor and corrupt, where you have to fear the police and sudden death every day; and then there is a massive earthquake.


            Someone pointed out in a Times op ed that the quake which killed at least 50,000 in Haiti was the same on the Richter scale, 7.0, as the one which killed fewer than 70 in California some years back. That the difference is poverty, and particularly cheap construction of buildings which fall down easily and crush the people in them.


            I try to remember at least once every day that I form part of the extremely privileged upper crust of people on earth, simply by virtue of being well fed, warm, educated, and secure.


            The impulse to help can be intense and frustrating at the same time. After Katrina, I knew and admired a young female EMT who quit our ambulance company and went to New Orleans on her own. She  volunteered, and eventually found employment with, an ambulance company there. I would have loved to do the same but could not quit my job. So I signed up for a team my company sent, but never got deployed.


            After September 11, I had various first hand experiences of the difficulties of supply and demand in aid situations. On the day itself, after the initial shock, I went to donate blood, but the Red Cross was overwhelmed and had stopped taking donations. Later, I read that much of the blood given that day was discarded. People were either killed by the collapsing buildings, or for the most part were only lightly injured; there weren't many who were bleeding. Later, when I volunteered at the pier where services for survivors and families were centered, I saw store-rooms filling up with un-needed goods—teddy bears, canned food, dust masks—which had been sent from all over the country.


            Every few years, there is a scandal about some nonprofit or other. I don't mean the ones which are entirely fraudulent, but those which do some good work—except that ninety-five percent of donations go to salaries and overhead.


            Even the people who bravely go to the location, like my young ambulance friend, may be more trouble than help. Untrained, unprepared for what they will find, naïve, they may need to be rescued themselves. The Red Cross has ferocious rules against self-deployment; its volunteers are strictly enjoined to stick to the tasks they were trained for.


            The disturbing thing is that, in a disaster, there may be relatively little we can do to help. Certainly we can send money, but we will never know how much of it actually reached the people in need. When it does, there are all kinds of moral arguments about whether it was effective or did more damage—formula for third world babies instead of breast milk; blankets instead of factories to make them.


            In the lovely short novel, A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean said:


  So it is....that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don't know what part to give     or maybe we don't like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the       part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed. It is like the auto-supply shop over town where they always say, "Sorry, we are just out of that part.”

            The real lesson is that aid needs to be provided by the specialists, and not for appearances or for political gain, but with real intelligence. An international assistance army, a force specifically trained in providing shelter, food, clean water, medical attention and search and rescue, is a lovely idea, just one of many I have about a balmy future completely inconsistent with what I really know about human nature.


Race rhetoric


            The continued propensity of senior politicians unguardedly to make statements about the President's skin color, cleanliness, diction etc. is shocking to me. I am fifty five years old, grew up in an unconsciously racist environment in Brooklyn, New York (my parents referred to a house cleaner older than themselves as “the girl”), and would never talk like that. Never. Both on a self conscious and intuitive level.  All white people come from more or less racist backgrounds, but as intentional beings, we can put it aside and forget about it (while remembering history, name check Santayana here). But I guess its useful to remember where we came from and how racist we still are.


            I had a salutory experience many years ago. I went to see Denzel Washington in “Devil in a Blue Dress” on opening night and the audience was full of a black middle class which, even today, is all too often invisible in New York City. What I saw: people who were better dressed than I was, made more money, were largely better spoken, and therefore were in many respects more successful by ordinary standards. That's what I see when I look at the President. He was two years or so after me at Harvard Law School; he's president, and I am writing  this for a small readership on the Web.


Yay for Google


            Can we stop whatever else we are doing for a moment and contemplate respectfully the unique spectacle of a company pulling out of China to protest state censorship? Instead of regarding it as one more morally neutral sales opportunity?    


Senatorial holds


            The National Labor Relations Board has three vacant seats out of five, and has been understaffed for more than a year, because the newly curmudgeonly Senator McCain has placed a “hold” on confirming nominees. The ancient right of a single senator to block a vote on a nomination is frequently exercised for ideological reasons or out of personal dislike, but often also as a form of extortion (fulfill my demands or you will never see your nominee again). Most of the time I worry about unfettered Presidential power, but this is an example of a legislative power which needs to be pruned back.




            I have (against my  better knowledge and nature) become addicted to Facebook. Some general observations: Its a community and communities are mostly good (except when humans make them into bad things, like communities founded on murder, Al Qaeda for example). Though at first it seemed to be a community of  vapidity (“Joe Botz Just Hit You With A Brick Pillow!”), you can use your wall any way you want, including for thought-provoking or devastatingly clever utterances, as long as they are very short. The opportunity to click a link and produce the words “Jonathan Wallace likes this” I originally thought was a substitute for not having any ideas on the subject matter. But its really like a calling card or sign in book, a way of letting someone know you paid them attention.


            I will probably stay away from Twitter. Beside the deliberately self mocking name (a place where twits chatter?), it is at the bottom of a hierarchy of Internet based communication, each of which is arguably dumber and more crippled than what came before it. 1. The dense, extensively footnoted dissertation you placed on your server for others to download via ftp or emailed out as a file attachment. 2. The web page which was a shorter, non-footnoted version of the same ideas, with images and links usually substituting for the extensive research and fact checking in the former.  3. The blog, which allowed you to present half formed ideas, with a couple of links to other sites but not much research or rewriting. 4. Facebook, the perfect place to utter short bon mots, or present canned content if you have no ideas; the site is full of amusing “tests”, of which my favorite selects the mythical beast you would ride carrying which weapon (“You would ride into battle on a griffin, carrying a mace”.) 5. Twitter, where you can say anything you want as long as you don't exceed 140 characters. Are we heading towards the world of the old prison joke about jokes in prison? They number them so they don't have to repeat them; the oldest inmate calls out “42!” and everyone laughs.


The murdered CIA team


            I find myself grieving the CIA team killed by a double agent in Afghanistan. On the one hand, I have detested the CIA most of my life for its murderous work, such as assassination plans against Castro, and its horrendous role in Chile. The CIA has a lot of blood on its hands, and would have even more if all of its initiatives had succeeded.


            On the other, in this case—hunting high level Al Qaeda operatives—they were doing good work. The most poignant aspect is that they died of trust, of desire and negligence. They were excited by the prospect of meeting—and using—the highest level Al Qaeda defector ever. They trusted him, because a  Jordanian intelligence official was bringing him in. And their gatekeepers were terribly negligent not to check him for explosives.


            While it contradicts the trope of the smart, amoral, killer CIA, these deaths fit right in with the alternate trope popularized by Graham Greene in “The Quiet American”, that Americans, even those working in intelligence, are too naïve and idealistic to live.


            I hate the feeling that the enemy is smarter than we are.


Scapegoating EMS


            Two NYC Fire Department EMT's were suspended and are under criminal investigation for failing to save the life of a pregnant employee in a bagel store where they were buying their breakfast. It is primitive human nature, and a prominent part of our litigious culture, to look for someone to blame for every bad outcome.


            As a former EMT who worked on ambulances for five years, I believe there is much more to this story. Both were dispatchers who worked indoors, not on ambulances. Yes, they were EMT's, but each had worked the street only briefly, and years before. More significantly, they were not on duty and had no medical equipment handy. We don't save lives just by wearing a blue uniform; in order to do so we must use oxygen tanks and other equipment they didn't have available. The patient, whom they never saw because she was in a back room, died of asthma. She could only have been saved by a paramedic, not an EMT, intubating her. The two EMT-dispatchers, by their own account, did the only thing they could have done: they called an ambulance.


            Prosecutors love to place blame while grabbing headlines, but the law is absolutely clear: an off duty EMT is not required to respond to an emergency, any more than any other citizen is required to pull over and help at the scene of an automobile accident. While it is possible (if you doubt the EMT's accounts) that they could have handled the crisis better from a moral or public relations standpoint, they neither violated the law or their own training.




            I have no love for arms dealers, but the sting reported in the Times for January 21, in which some arms salespeople thought they were bribing foreign officials, disturbs me. As do the stings constantly reported against people in all walks of life who are arrested for email communications with someone they think is a 14 year old female. It occurs to me that current day entrapment law does not go nearly far enough to protect the innocent. It says that entrapment is only a defense when the defendant can show he had no predisposition to commit the crime.


            However, under our constitutional law, you can't actually be indicted for having a “criminal predisposition”, in the absence of an actual crime. So why should the presence of a “predisposition” prevent you from defending yourself? I have a hard time with the concept that a crime can be said to have been committed in a situation where there was no actual foreign official or fourteen year old girl involved. Perhaps, instead of a “predisposition”, law enforcement should actually be required to show a history of other related crimes. But, if there are other related crimes to prove, why not simply investigate those,  instead of performing a fictional sting? I think sting operations are beloved of lazy, headline-seeking cops and prosecutors—who should not in any event be in the business of tricking people into breaking the law. 


The New York City Fire Department


            During my five years as an EMT, I worked for the New York City Fire Department about six months, didn't like it and left. During that time, I did not have more contact with the people we called the “bucket fairies” than I had had before I joined. The firefighters fought furiously, and successfully, to prevent the EMT's from being based in the same “houses” as themselves.


            They said we would interrupt their culture, keep them from concentrating, from being their best on a call. One colleague of mine on the ambulance thought they simply didn't want us to see them drinking and snorting coke on the job. But most EMT's believe another explanation: ambulance people in New York City are largely black, Hispanic and female. They didn't want us around because, after all these years, in a city which has an African American majority, the Fire Department is still, mysteriously, largely Irish, Italian and male. It is an atavism, a hold-over, a club which has managed to remain almost entirely white for fifty years during which almost every other instance of de facto segregation has been corrected.


            My congratulations to federal judge Garaufis of Brooklyn, who has just ordered the department to hire 293 black and Latino firefighters.


Campaign speech


            The conservative majority on the Supreme Court, continuing with its radical reshaping of our society, just overruled two leading campaign finance decisions of recent years. Archibald Cox, former fired Watergate prosecutor, said in my constitutional law class at Harvard that the Supreme Court undercuts its own credibility by over-ruling its own recent decisions too often.


            The upshot is that “independent” groups can now spend unlimited amounts on attack ads, as long as these initiatives do not flow directly from the candidate. The Times' news analysis carries an unusually frank headline: “Lobbies' New Power: Cross Us, and Our Cash Will Bury You”. This is touted by conservatives as a First Amendment victory, ironic from people who don't care much about freedom of speech. But it is not, because it confuses money with speech. Unlimited money does not mean unlimited diversity of speech, but its opposite.


            This simply will extend and multiply several of the darkest aspects of American politics: 1. He who has the most money to spend (or now, spent on his behalf) will win the election. 2. Politicians everywhere don't have to worry only about their own constituents, but about offending any sufficiently wealthy and angry vested interest anywhere else in the country. Mormons from Utah decided California's policy on gay marriage, and Tea Party activists from Iowa helped Scott Brown win Massachusetts. 3. Small, diverse and unpopular speech will be drowned out by money, and 4. A conservative homogeneity will be promoted and strictly enforced.


            The result will be much more of what we already have: a right wing, obedient, unthinking electorate, ready to believe whatever it is told.


Internet freedom


            The hypocrisy of the governmental initiative to fund Internet freedom of speech abroad is rather delightful. Hillary Clinton announced we are investing in technologies to allow the citizens of foreign countries such as China and Iraq to end run state censorship of the Internet. While some of the filtering and blocking technology used by autocratic states is homegrown, some has been licensed, or in some cases stolen from, American companies. What makes our cheerful, pro-speech policy such an ethical spectacle, however, is that about ten years ago, Congress mandated that libraries receiving certain federal funding install that same technology. The Supreme Court, in one of its most clueless decisions ever, upheld that law. So the censorware we are now helping Chinese avoid is alive and well in your public library at home.


            You couldn't make this shit up.


Air America


            The failure of political diversity in this country is strongly demonstrated by the disappearance of liberal talk radio network Air America from the ether this week, after a decade of struggle and bankruptcy. Right wing bloviators are heard by millions of people and make millions of dollars, but nobody wanted to listen to the left on radio.




            James O'Keefe, the kid who got ACORN in trouble some months ago, went a step too far when he invaded the offices of the Democratic senator from Louisiana and started tampering with her phone system. Its dangerous to get pranks and investigative journalism mixed up. One thing that bothers me about people like him—and I say the same thing to Michael Moore: its just as easy to get people on your own side ideologically to sound stupid or corrupt. More significantly, he lived and thrived in an atmosphere not just of “the right is always right” but “the right is above the law.” I hope he does a little time as a result. Maybe when he emerges he will be a man of the left, investigating the people who (as he is now discovering) failed to provide any cover for him when he got in over his head.


New York and the Terrorism Trials


            I went back to double check and I don't find anything in the Constitution which makes any right guaranteed thereunder conditional on times being easy, or the right itself being inexpensive to grant.


            For example the Fifth Amendment says, very simply and elegantly, that “No person shall...  be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”


            It doesn't contain the words, “Unless due process shall be deemed too scary, or too expensive.”


            The fear, communicated yesterday by Mayor Bloomberg, that Al Qaeda trials will be too costly for New York, require too much police presence, or endanger our citizens, is beneath contempt.


            Expense and danger are not moral arguments; they are pragmatic ones being offered as non sequiturs in a moral conversation. The issue of expense inevitably would lead to the conclusion that terrorists (and any felon) should be shot without trial, as that would be a huge savings. The argument as to safety leads in the other direction, that all criminals should be released, as jailing them would make them angry.


Geithner and the Fed


            If our democracy ends—and I expect it will, in less than a century—a major reason will be the lack of memory and common sense of the American people, who seem to be ready to buy their next car from the very people who sold them the one that exploded. It is agonizing to listen to Republicans criticizing Timothy Geithner for being pro-bank, pro-AIG, in favor of fat cats, insufficiently responsive to the little people. If the Republicans ever have their way, we will live in an oligarchy reminiscent of Chile after the coup: a nation run by the bankers. We are almost there now, and truth be told, the Democrats are almost as beholden to the wealthy as the Republicans. Last week's decision on “third party” campaign spending was a major nail in the coffin.


            Republicans and Democrats have different special talents. The Democrats convince the average voter they will help her far more than they ever do. But the Republicans go that pitch one better, convincing the everyday person to vote for her own destruction. I saw this first hand last year in Lee County, Florida, where the Republicans had people in the streets angrily insisting that they don't want health coverage, mortgages and jobs         .


Device convergence


            For going on thirty years now, I've been buying the hype that all electronic devices will converge. The phone will be the Walkman, the computer, the camera, etc. For all this time, we have seen devices which carry out a couple of these purposes, usually doing only one of them well. And we have seen many which were pronounced the next great technology revolution, only to vanish from the scene.


             Once I was  an early purchaser of new technologies (bought a Sinclair ZX81 in 1981, a NEC 8201 notebook a couple years later, and actually paid $80 for Windows 1.0 in 1984, only to discover I couldn't do anything with it other than slide empty windows around).  Today, I'm a curmudgeon. I like to be off email for a couple hours here and there, so no Internet phone. I have rarely used a cell phone camera. Never did listen to music on the go (as a New Yorker I always would prefer to be able to hear  the sound of someone inserting a magazine into a Glock behind me, than “Vampire Weekend” via earbuds).


            Today, I give the people around me five years to adopt a technology before I will even think about using it. Even then it has to make sense, not as a great toy, but something which will actually make my life easier or better.




            I am stunned by the spectacle of a 59 person Democratic Senatorial majority terrified by a 41 person minority, and running for cover everywhere.