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March 2009

Rags and Bones

              

By Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

 

An un-noted transition for Obama

            The New York Times  for January 24 reported the first Predator strike ordered (or permitted) by President Obama:

Two missile attacks launched from remotely piloted American aircraft killed at least 15 people in western Pakistan on Friday. The strikes suggested that the use of drones to kill militants within Pakistan’s borders would continue under President Obama.

In a play of mine called “The Difference”, the president of the United States has the following exchange with an old acquaintance who is ex-CIA: 

PRESIDENT HAYNES: Do you think I’m a killer?

SCHEHEREZADE: You’re the President of the United States.

Four days or so after the inauguration, this is the first reported instance  of Obama ordering a killing. Since he probably never arranged a murder as U.S. Senator or earlier in his private life, this was presumably a major psychological moment in his transition to the presidency. We may never know what his thoughts were; I hope they were sufficiently grave.

The President’s first killing got less press attention than his selection of a dog for his children. We all might think a bit about the fact that our presidents are required to be killers—and how badly people work and fight to get the job.

A weak start?

            President Obama is having a few problems out of the gate. Its premature to make any judgments; any new administration should probably have three months’ grace. However, after so much chattering about the new administration’s incredibly detailed screening process, the late-breaking news that two nominees, Geithner at Treasury and Daschle at Health, had failed to pay some federal taxes is rather puzzling. While Geithner has already been approved and Daschle may be,  its all rather reminiscent of Clinton’s first two attorney general nominees, both of whom immediately tripped over revelations that both had employed illegal immigrants as nannies.

            More of a concern is the fact that the House vote on the stimulus package won not a single Republican vote. Given that Obama has appeared to play to the right in his appointments and legislation, the fact that no Republican legislator rewarded him with a vote is disturbing.  While the Democrats have enough seats in the House not to need the other party for anything, the same is not true in the Senate, where the Democrats are still a couple seats short of being able to end a filibuster. 

            Some Democratic senators are also already restless about the stimulus legislation.  Senate Democrats are notoriously unruly; President Carter antagonized his own party’s legislators and could not get anything done, resulting in a one term presidency and twelve ensuing years of Republican rule. Democrats are awfully good at shooting their own foot off and I hope its not happening again.

Caroline Kennedy

            I was not entirely insensible to the charm of having another Kennedy in the Senate, particularly Caroline, who is smart, relatively modest and untouched by the scandals which have surrounded other members of the family. However, I could understand the outrage of politicians who had worked really hard for years or decades in the public sphere, that the Senate appointment might go to someone who hadn’t held a full time, paid job in a couple of decades.

            Kennedy’s decision to drop out seemed both mysterious and frivolous, as if she spun everybody’s wheels without having really committed to getting into the fray. What happened behind the scenes we do not know; perhaps the governor told her he wasn’t going to choose her and gave her a chance to get out of the ring gracefully. One interesting rumor, however, was that she, like Clinton’s attorney general appointees, had a nanny problem.

            If true, it raises the question whether we are losing too many good candidates for public office based on relatively small glitches that don’t involve large moral issues. The amount of shit that gets hurled at people for small, good faith omissions has always been staggering (as is the blind eye turned to much larger offenses by people of one’s own party).  Of the recent crop of revelations, only Daschle’s failure to report a free car and chauffeur loaned him by a major contributor as income—to the tune of $140,000—reaches the “what the fuck?” level.

Breasts on television

            Television, in its serial dramas, is portraying an unprecedented number of  admirable professional women, including soldiers, detectives, judges, chiefs of medicine, college deans and lawyers. However, still being a medium rooted in the psyche of the average twelve year old male, television still wants to show us the breasts of these intelligent, independent, strong women, whenever possible.

            On an episode of the last, weakest “Star Trek” series some years ago, two of the regular characters, both officers, one male, one female,  got a dangerous dose of radiation, the only remedy for which was to strip to their underwear and rub oil into one another’s bodies. On an episode last season of “L Word”, which aspires simultaneously to be an honorable portrayal of lesbian life and to titillate its straight male audience, three characters ended up in the ring at a “Lesbian Hot Oil Wrestling” event. While I immediately found the “Star Trek” scene offensive, “L Word” almost got away with its wrestling scenes, until I imagined being an actress who believes she is involved in an honest enterprise, getting her first look at the script.

            Most disturbing of all is the necklines these actresses are required to wear in office scenes. The amount of cleavage shown in the workplace in even very serious shows is quite remarkable. A few years ago, an intelligent actress, Amy Brenneman, succeeded in persuading NBC to pick up a show in which she played a judge in family court. While she otherwise was permitted to function as a strong and admirable human being, on almost every episode she displayed more cleavage than you would ever see in a real courthouse. I have to believe that this was not Ms. Brenneman’s choice, but the result of a memo which arrived one day from network management.  On another show, “House”, which like “Judging Amy” is about really smart people with damaged social lives, Dr. Gregory House’s boss, Lisa Cutty, is always seen wearing low necklines at the hospital. “House” wants to have it both ways; the outspoken, obnoxious protagonist is always ranking on Dr. Cutty about her inappropriate blouses.

             Television itself wants to have it both ways: strong women who are also sex objects. The problem is that the second message overrides and undercuts the first, and panders to a very child-like, primitive element in the male audience: men who still haven’t had a chance to learn that a woman may be completely compelling because she is incredibly smart and really good at her job.

Stable and unstable novels

            I have been reading some eighteenth and nineteenth century authors who appeal to me far more than Jane Austen and George Eliot: Thackeray, Fielding and most recently Trollope.

            Eliot actually apologizes in Middlemarch for her protagonist, complaining that society has not offered her the opportunity to be anything more noble or interesting than the wife of a good man.  Middlemarch is well-spun, finely observed and worth reading. For her part, Austen’s prose is more nuanced, her vision more beautiful, than any of these other authors. But what makes Vanity Fair, Tom Jones and The Way We Live Now (which I am reading today) so much more interesting, is the greater awareness of the hypocrisy of society and the instability of the protagonists themselves, who can end up ostracized, even starving, at any moment. Even while gently complaining, Austen and Eliot never really question the fundamental soundness of the absolutely stultifying middle class environments they portray.

            I have the same problem with American novels about the suburbs, like Appointment in Samarra, Revolutionary Road or Bullet Park.  I have little remaining tolerance for books about people who feel they will come unglued if they hear their neighbor tell the same joke one more time Friday night at the club, but don’t actually run away to the East Village or, even better, Morocco. What makes novels like Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and Germinal so much more fascinating is that the characters, rather than stuck in an unbearable marriage another forty years, can end up beheaded by a train or a guillotine, poisoned with strychnine or asphyxiated at the bottom of a mineshaft.

            Proust said the mastery of a novelist is in the quality of the mirror he holds up to life, and  not the quality of the life he chooses to mirror. This is true up to a point. Proust’s people fancy themselves part of the upper middle and upper classes, and not much changes in their status; but in his case, it is the restlessness of the mirror itself, which shimmers like mercury, that keeps our attention, constantly showing us radically revised instantiations of the characters.

            This is simply not true of a novel like Revolutionary Road, the ur-novel of suburbia. As portrayed in the faithful but truncated recent movie version, the protagonists believe they are talented and special, without having any particular abilities whatever. While waiting for life to hand them some kind of dispensation, they die on the vine in their vapid suburbia. It is hard to feel any sympathy for these whiny, shiny children, considering that at the moment the story takes place—the late 1950’s—there are people elsewhere, in Harlem, in Appalachia, living much harder lives with more fortitude. It is tempting to think that at least some of the authors of suburban and middle class novels are themselves shiny, whiny children who don’t know anything else.

 Blue collar

            My wife loves to dance, and recently we have been going out to a bar in a cheesy beach town in Western Florida, where the clientele seem to be largely bikers, lesbians and people with great tattoos, dancing to the Doors and Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Last night, we tried a bar in an upscale island town. The same bottle of beer and glass of wine that cost eight bucks in the other bar were fourteen here, and the dancers were all staid seventy year olds (and some much younger dates) swaying to Elvis Presley songs. It reminded me that blue collar is more interesting and fun. I was born white collar and have been working on becoming blue collar my whole life. If I play my cards right, I may still get to live in a trailer before I’m through. I already have the tattoo and five years’ of ambulance work.

            I asked my wife, who would you rather be, Cate Blanchett as the suicidal suburbian in “Revolutionary Road” or Marisa Tomei, stripper with a heart of gold, in “The Wrestler”? Cate Blanchett, she replied. Well, I said, I’d much rather be Mickey Rourke’s declining wrestler than Leo DiCaprio’s shallow, vain businessman.

Fourteen children

            The quest of a thirty-three year old single woman to have children recently resulted in the birth of octuplets. Since she already had six, all conceived through in vitro fertilization, she now has fourteen.  The medical board has begun an investigation as to the reasons her fertility specialist helped her to have  so many kids.

            It hasn’t been clear in the news reporting who paid for the medical  attention she has received up until now. The family? Insurance? Taxpayers? In a world where medical ethics refuses the transplant of a liver to someone who abused his last one,  there would have been nothing inappropriate in refusing medical attention and resources to someone who already had six children.

            Regardless of ecological concerns about zero population growth, a fourteen child family seems like a personal disaster in the making. I helped raise one child, who was relatively well behaved but who on a hyper day after eating sugared cereal, could produce the impression there were six children in the room. I don’t think anybody can give fourteen kids the daily attention they need, help with homework, supervise play, and sit with each at bedtime. Even in a normal economy, what American family can clothe and feed fourteen children, let alone send them to college? There is no implication the family is rich (the woman lives with her parents).  (A week after I wrote this, we learned that she receives food stamps and Aid to Families With Dependent Children—which is the new name of what we used to call “Welfare”.)

            Having fourteen children is irresponsible, and so were the doctors who helped her do it.  As a taxpayer I also resent paying for her hobby.

Bipartisanship

            The House split down party lines, with not a single Republican voting for the stimulus. Two or three of the remaining liberal Republican Senators will vote for the bill,  allowing President Obama to avoid a filibuster.

            We have had more than twenty years now of cheap shot, pound on the table politics, resulting in profound political deadlock. A supreme moral test of our politicians is how bad an emergency must be before the two parties unite to confront it. I thought the present economic melt-down would be such an emergency, but apparently not.

            The Japanese have a powerful concept of saving and losing face, which leads politicians to take responsibility for mistakes and to resign (if they don’t actually commit suicide). European Parliamentary systems also have a tradition of governments resigning and calling elections to adjust issues of responsibility and confidence.

            Only in the United States apparently do figures like Phil Gramm get to put the economy in the toilet and then claim merrily to have had nothing to do with it.  I would have a lot more respect for the Republicans in the Congress if a few of them apologized to their constituents and said, I guess deregulation wasn’t such a good idea, after all.

Shifting arguments

            A few years ago, the sweet spot in Republican campaign communications was convincing white males that they didn’t want certain Other People (minorities, immigrants, etc.) to have good jobs, own homes, have health insurance, or otherwise receive the benefits of American life. Today, the Republicans have the more complicated task of convincing those same white males that they themselves do not want to work, own homes or have health insurance. Good luck, folks.

Tom Daschle

            Call me the Schadenfreude Kid. I admit it, I routinely feel good when a politician takes a fall, even a Democrat.

            After leaning more about Tom Daschle,  I feel sorry for him. He had some ethical principles, spent a lot of his time doing pro bono work and refused to lobby his former colleagues or to register as a lobbyist. Instead, he made millions advising people how to lobby his former colleagues. He is far from being in the club of the Sleaziest Ex-Elected Officials Ever.  (No Viagra ads, for one thing.)

            Daschle’s mistake was (to borrow Sarah Palin’s cute phrase) “palling around” with billionaires. They’ll get you in trouble every time.

            When a guy with oodles of money wants to give you a car and driver, absolutely free, look out. It isn’t intuitive to me, and it apparently wasn’t to Tom Daschle, that this was taxable income. If your neighbor gives you a ride to work every day, do you have to pay taxes on that too?

            For twenty-five years, the era of cheap politics, people have been throwing away political careers based on relatively minor, momentary decisions which they made completely unknowingly. And the people belaboring them for these decisions are no better than they are in most cases—not even less negligent—and really have no right to throw the first stone. Newt Gingrich was cheating on his own wife while he led the effort to impeach Bill Clinton for cheating on his.

            People should be held responsible for negligent failures to pay taxes. But we are losing an awful lot of good public servants during confirmation hearings on these kinds of issues.

Wall Street irrationality

            The New York Times for February 9 has an interesting report in the Business section on the rare circumstances under which analysts will ever recommend the sale of a security. I overstated the case in this column recently when I said they never do so.

            The truth is that Wall Street will very rarely tell you to sell anything, and much more frequently will recommend buying into a declining market,  making hopeful evaluations (based on nothing) that the market has hit bottom and is starting its comeback. The article offered examples of securities which have declined 70% more since analysts advocated buying them.

             Wall Street,  especially but not exclusively  at the level of the small individual investor (really the sucker whose money Wall Street takes to pay everyone else),  is in the business of practicing voodoo and calling it science.  Market swings are frequently completely irrational as all Wall Street workers really know in their hearts—in a well turned phrase, market bubbles are driven by “irrational exuberance” (as well as by greed).  A well-elucidated and very dishonest art exists of explaining what can’t be explained. An excellent example of voodoo as science is the continuously updated driveling of market journalists on sources like Yahoo.com trying to offer rational explanations for the collection of bizarre upticks and declines that constitute daily market behavior. When you see terms like “profit taking” and “selling pressure”, try substituting the following: “I have absolutely no idea what is going on”.

            Two years ago, I put money in the hands of financial advisors, and arranged to wire myself putative monthly interest to live on. As the market slid, then tanked, I waited in vain for a phone call telling me to cash in, or even to decrease the monthly draw. Wall Street is not in the business of delivering bad news. A few weeks ago, I  moved most of my net worth from mutual funds to cash,  and arranged to draw the actual interest. It seems like the only sensible decisions made about Wall Street today are the ones you make on your own, without advice.

A presidential apology

            After Daschle resigned, President Obama said the magic words, “I screwed up.” This was simultaneously refreshing and disturbing. The last Presidential apology everyone remembers was Kennedy’s after the invasion of Cuba.

            It takes a big person to take responsibility. Look at the people around you and ask which of them is really capable of a sincere apology. Likely the percentage is quite small. Obama’s apology for appointing someone he knew had a tax problem compares very refreshingly to President Bush, who years into his administration, when asked at a news conference to identify the biggest mistake he ever made, couldn’t think of anything.

            On the other hand, we have all known people who apologize too much, and we come to think of them as light-weight. Obama may have said he was sorry too soon, and on too minor an issue. I hope he will not see fit to do so again for a while, and then only for a major fuck-up (something comparable to the Bay of Pigs).

Shame on Judd Gregg

            Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire just withdrew as President Obama’s nominee for the Commerce Department. This was extremely lame and also insulting to the President.

            Nothing has visibly happened in the few days since Obama offered Gregg the job to justify his change of mind. Undoubtedly, members of his own party bullied him into refusing a job he had already accepted. Having stated a few days ago that the stimulus package was courageous and necessary, then abstaining from the voting, he is now saying he should not join an administration with which he has profound disagreements.  And he attributes his initial desire to serve as “euphoria” at the invitation. Mr. Gregg: please stop talking now.

            Gregg received a very high compliment from Obama, and harmed him in return. His withdrawal makes the president look callow and foolish, and wastes the president’s time. 

            By succumbing to the bullying, Gregg passed up the opportunity which Hillary Clinton accepted, of adding a noble executive branch coda to his years of legislative service. Instead, he has established himself in public memory as a flake and a coward. He said today he probably wouldn’t run again; I hope he serves the remainder of his term in isolation and embarrassment, reflecting on what might have been.

Shame on the Republicans

            President Obama’s attempts at bipartisanship have now all but failed. The stimulus package passed with the assistance of three liberal Republicans, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania. It will be interesting to see if they are now punished by their party. Not a single House Republican voted for the bill.

            I would have hoped that patriotism and a desire to address the gross economic emergency would have led the Republicans to cooperate more than this. Obama, now looking somewhat foolish as a result, sincerely wanted to work out politically sustainable compromise solutions. The Republican party instead chose the cheap and easy role of holding itself out and taking cheap shots, which  is much easier than pitching in to do the hard work required.

            Individual Republicans and their flacks are now issuing statements saying that the economy can’t be repaired by spending money, but only by cutting taxes, slimming government, and creating an environment conducive to business formation. This is a remarkably bankrupt platform. People who are unemployed don’t benefit from tax cuts, and the other two clauses (slimming and creating) are disguised calls for further deregulation and the freeing of business to return to an environment of rampant greed.

            Like Judd Gregg, the Republican party had an opportunity to perform noble service in a dangerous time. Instead, it has chosen, like its last president and his predecessor Warren Harding, to plant itself on the wrong side of history.

            I hope the American people will deliver the Republicans a resounding slap in the next elections.

Shame on Obama

            The new president’s approach to appointing his cabinet has been naïve and has also been mismanaged—a problem which still gets laid at his door even if caused by his subordinates.

            I worked for years in a recruiting business and made an extensive study of the problem of “fall outs”—candidates who accept, then withdraw from, a job. While there is much to blame in the behavior of people who say yes, then no—they waste other people’s time and resources—the ultimate responsibility for a fall out lies on the recruiter who failed to close him on the new job. “Closing” means not cramming a candidate in to an inappropriate job, but eliciting and addressing every objection and concern. If you can’t close the candidate in this holistic sense, don’t let him say yes.

            It is obvious that neither Barack Obama or anyone working for him closed Judd Gregg on being Secretary of Commerce. So, as badly as Gregg behaved, there is plenty of blame to place with the Obama administration as well.

Bank nationalizations

            A few weeks ago, the punditocracy seemed to settle on the proposition that failing banks should be temporary nationalized, restored to health and then re-privatized—a solution adopted in some European nations today and that apparently worked in Japan in the ‘90’s after it experienced its own real estate bubble. The simple, and persuasive argument in favor of bank nationalization goes like this: If we are handing billions to the banks anyway (as Bush already began doing with the first half of TARP), shouldn’t we get some equity in return? If not, aren’t we just giving free money to rascals who already lost billions? If you accept the proposition that we shouldn’t hand over money without getting equity, then nationalization follows as a natural consequence whenever we hand over so much money that in return we receive a controlling share of the equity.

Yes, nationalization sounds like something tinpot dictators do in third world countries, but there is a huge practical and moral difference. Those nationalizations occur when authoritarian regimes force a takeover of independent companies which want to be left alone. United States ownership of banks will occur only when failing banks decide to sell themselves to the government to stay alive. Buying failing banks is sound business for a government. Giving billions to failing banks without taking equity is not.

            The only argument against nationalization (other than voodoo responses which end the debate by invoking “socialism”) is that the government will do a shitty job running the banks directly. I agree with the proposition that government bureaucrats are not likely to succeed in running commercial enterprises—it requires a completely different mindset, education, reflexes and habits. But we already have a history of successfully taking over banks and reselling them, during the 1980’s savings and loan emergency.

            I would rather see the government take equity, and learn or re-learn how to run a bank (for as short a time as possible),   then give billions of string-free money to the same people who  bet the house or mortgage backed securities.

            The Obama stimulus plan was therefore a disappointment, as it seemed to veer away from bank nationalization and towards a vague “bad bank” plan (creating an entity to buy all the crummiest assets from the failing banks to get them off the balance sheet).

Corrupt Pennsylvania judges

            Hardly a day goes by without a story breaking about official corruption,  and we get dulled to it. The story of the two Pennsylvania judges who took kickbacks for sentencing minors to serve time in private lock-ups stands out because of the unusual level of depravity involved.

            In the everyday bribe or kickback story, a diffuse public interest is harmed, which can be defined as a right to transparency, a right to have the lowest bidder win the contract, or a right not to have public officials enrich themselves at our expense. In this case, these judges, for their personal gain, were ruining the lives of young people many of whom should never have been in the judicial system in the first place, by sentencing them to do time, often disregarding prosecutorial pleas for leniency.

            The case which received the most press attention was that of 17 year old Hillary Transue, whose sole offense was posting a Myspace page making fun of her school’s assistant principal. Transue, who  presumably knew she was engaging in a protected exercise of her First Amendment rights, was sent away to a correctional camp for three months.

            Though the judges were deeply villainous, school authorities, cops and the prosecutor’s office come in for their share of blame, as does the Pennsylvania legislature.

            School officials were blameworthy for ignoring the First Amendment. Everyone knows that grade school is the training ground for citizenship. In my day, forty years ago, that meant an authoritarian school administration modeling democracy by staging fixed student elections and threatening outspoken students  with expulsion. Apparently nothing has changed.

             Then there are the cops who took Transue into custody when they should have recognized that this was a civil matter to be resolved between the school, Transue and her parents.

            The prosecutors who thought they had a criminal matter in front of them, even if they were ready to recommend leniency, deserve to lose their jobs.

            At some point in the past, the Pennsylvania legislature chose to make their state one of those where minors, incredibly, are allowed to waive the right to counsel. Transue and numerous others were bullied into foregoing an attorney by being told that it would take months to assign them one—and that they would remain incarcerated while waiting.

            These events are a warped reflection of a societal trend to force children into the criminal justice system. In New York and elsewhere, we are seeing students whose age is still in single digits arrested for acting out in class. Behavior which in my day would have warranted a trip to the principal’s office and a phone call to parents, is now being handled as a police matter.

            Transue’s parents were victims too, but could have done a better job protecting their daughter. When the principal of Midwood High School threatened me with expulsion in 1970 for leading an antiwar demonstration, my father responded, “Do that and I will sue you all the way up to the Supreme Court.” The principal, who like most bullies was cowardly, backed down right away.

            Who was watching the judges, during the years this continued? Where was the local bar,  newspaper,  and government?

Beverly Eckert

            Beverly Eckert, who became a political activist after losing her husband in the World Trade Center on 9/11, died in an airplane crash in Buffalo a few nights ago.

            Hers was a familiar name in recent years,  as she pressed for the formation of the 9/11 commission, and then crusaded for government  compliance with its inquiries. Just a week or so ago, she was one of a group of people who met with President Obama to discuss the closure of Guantanamo.

            I never met her, nor can I say that I followed her activities closely, but her death is more painful than  that of the average stranger, because of the suffering she endured losing her husband only nine years ago.  The day she met him, if a voice had whispered, “You will marry this man, and he will be killed by Islamic fundamentalists, and then you will die in a plane crash,” it would have seemed a cruel trick.

            I know the devout will say, “God called her to him”, or “She is joining her husband,” or simply, “Do not question his plan.” But the only way I can reconcile myself to a universe which would kill first Beverly’s husband, than her, in unrelated incidents, is to believe that all is random, that there is no plan and no God. To me, a random universe is a benign one; if you happen to be in a plane that falls, it was nothing which was predetermined even an hour before it happened, but  merely one of the side effects of being human, of being alive. I cannot adapt to the idea of any Being who would have chosen to kill Beverly Eckert, no matter what the reason.

Rosie’s

            I have spent the last four and a half months living on Sanibel Island, Florida, a few hundred yards from a deli named Rosie’s which I visit most mornings around seven for  breakfast, a cup of coffee and two newspapers, the local one and the Times. There is no Rosie in evidence; her place was held by a man named John, affable, lightly bearded, and friendly to his clientele. One morning, when I ordered an egg sandwich instead of the usual muffin, John followed me out to my car with a little plastic cup. “This is Greek seasoning,” he said. “Try it on that egg sandwich.” Next time, I told him it was really good, and after that he always put the Greek stuff, which contained basil, oregano and several mystery ingredients,  on my sandwich.

            The first time I ordered an egg sandwich from him, John expressed surprise that I didn’t want ham, bacon or sausage on it, and we talked about cultural differences between New York and Southwestern Florida breakfasts. “I’m a meat cutter by trade,” he said. “That’s how I got started in the business.”

            Outside John’s, sitting on the steps and on two benches, were always the same old retired Northern men, talking about fishing and day trading and cursing out Barack Obama—one reason I never joined them. “Its an Obama-nation,” one of them said the day after the election. Most mornings, John was outside sitting with them. He would look up at me and ask, “Want breakfast this morning?” If I said yes, he would follow me into his store. If I didn’t want eggs, he stayed where he was, and I made my purchases from one of several pleasant women who worked the cash register, and who sported a couple of interesting tattoos among them.

            This morning, Rosie’s had been remodeled, and John was nowhere to be seen, his authoritative place taken by two men I’d never seen before. “Where is John?” asked the codger in line ahead of me. “He doesn’t work here any more,” said the woman at the register, without any apparent remorse. “Didn’t he lease the place?” “He sold,” the woman said.  “This place changes hands every few months,” the codger told me as he left. I bought my provisions and, exiting via the porch, saw the alte kocker brigade outside, in full cry. I felt angry at them and at the woman inside, that they didn’t care more about John, that the beat went on, that the community that had formed around Rosie’s had little or nothing to do with John but was more attached to the steps and benches.

Governors and Congressfolk

            Every Republican member of the House and all but three Senators voted against the stimulus bill—but most republican governors are working with the new administration to get their share of the stimulus their Congressional colleagues rejected.

            The reason is that Governors have a real job. They look out the window of the limo or of their office in the statehouse and see businesses which will close or stay open, people who will work or be unemployed, roads which will flow or bottleneck, directly as a result of the decisions they make.

            Governors know the buck stops on their desks. Some, like Gray Davis, who lost a recall election during an economic downturn in California a few years back, find that accountability for their actions, or even for prevailing conditions, can be very sudden and swift.

            Congresscritters, by contrast, are specialists in shifting and diffusing responsibility. Before taking responsibility for anything, a legislator will blame: 1. The President. 2. The other party. 3. The other members of her own party. 4. The voters. 5. “Government” in general. A legislator’s moral life consists of “just slip-sliding along”.  The chorus of Republican voices blaming “big government” for the results of their own disastrous decisions on bank and financial regulation is a classic exercise in blame-avoidance. Standard issue for the newly elected should be a huge button which says “Its Never My Fault.”

            Congressfolk, rightly or wrongly, also assume that the stupid electorate will have forgotten their mistakes by election day. A Republican spokesperson was quoted in the Times the other day saying that, even if the economy comes back, its dubious that in four years the voters will remember to blame Republicans for voting against the stimulus.

            Republicans right now are in the position of Tom Sawyer watching others whitewash his fence, and Yossarian watching others building the clubhouse. You don’t have to do anything, and you still get to enjoy the fruits of the work.

            The person who holds himself out of a group and criticizes has a delightful job. If the work fails, he gets to say “I told you so.” If it succeeds, he gets to share in the general glow.

            Ancient Athens solved the responsibility problem by means of the “graphe paranomon”, a law which allowed individuals to sue legislators who had sponsored a bad or injurious law.

            Incidentally, the fact that governors actually take responsibility for their work makes them better presidential material than Senators. His lack of executive experience appears to be a factor in President Obama’s transition and can be linked to his problems with nominees and to the apparent stature of the stimulus as a Congressional Democratic hodepodge instead of a presidential initiative.

Pet attacks

            In Connecticut, a pet chimpanzee, raised as its owner’s child, badly mauled her friend. The owner acknowledged, then denied, having given the animal a Xanax shortly before.

            Pet animals fill a deep need in us for unconditional love, and we tend to treat them as if they were humans. This works fine the vast majority of the time, as well-fed, pampered predators tend to refrain from acting on their violent instincts; dogs, for example, co-exist in houses for years with cats and other natural prey without killing them. When domesticated animals attack us, we tend to regard it as an aberration, rather than an expression of a suppressed norm.

            When a dog in France chewed off its comatose owner’s face a few years ago, some animal behavioralists shrugged it off as being a fairly natural reaction. That animal was even put up for adoption, not put down.

            When I worked on ambulances, I regularly picked up people who had been mauled by their own pit bulls. The first words out of their mouths: “Its not his fault. I made a sudden move. He’s a good dog….”

            When the chimp she had raised as her closest companion for fourteen years attacked her human friend, the pet owner took a knife and stabbed him, and clubbed him with a shovel. The violence in her was not much further from the surface than in the actual animal.

            We live in two worlds at once, the world of polite appearance and vicious reality; the ought of Hume and the is of Hobbes.

More on the Congressvermin

            A very entertaining coda to the overwhelming Republican vote against the stimulus bill: many of the same people who voted against it are now putting out press releases, Twitters, etc. lauding particular elements of the package such as support for high speed rail, and help to new home buyers. The implication being that they take some credit for passage of the bill they opposed. The hypocrisy and irresponsibility of legislators really has no limit.

Continuing some Bush legal positions

            The Obama administration has decided to forge ahead with some legal arguments made by its predecessor pertaining to enemy combatants and extraordinary rendition. It is maintaining that enemy combatants captured away from a battlefield can be detained endlessly without trial, and that state secrets doctrine prevents disclosure of requested information in certain pending litigation. Most notably, the new administration is continuing to stonewall in the lawsuit of the Canadian engineer arrested in transit in a U.S. airport and sent to Syria, where he was tortured and finally determined to be innocent. (One thing you can say for the Syrians: when they torture people and figure out they don’t know anything, they let them go instead of killing them like a normal totalitarian state would.) Canada has already settled with this man, paying him millions for having provided false information about him to the US.

            The Obama administration is also reserving its right to hold some military commissions, instead of moving whatever detainees it doesn’t release into the U.S. legal system.

            I am concerned and disappointed and will keep an eye on these developments in this column.

A racism test

            I am very skeptical of sociological experiments because they mostly seem to take place in a world of complete unreality, where results may be skewed by the subject’s knowledge that the whole exercise is fake.  I wonder whether everyone pressing the button to shock the victim in Stanley Milgram’s experiment really believed they were delivering electricity to a human being.  Similarly, experiments based on questionnaires are distorted, like exit polls, by people giving the responses they believe will show them in the best light., rather than the truth.

            That said, I recommend a very enjoyable ten minute online exercise on a Harvard website, https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/takeatest.html. Scroll to the bottom and select the “Race” test.

             I was about to describe the test in detail, but that might enable you to game it better than if you take it fresh. The results to date show that most people are somewhat biased against the other race, with a much higher percentage of European-Americans showing stronger bias against African-Americans than vice versa.

            These results are not surprising. The test seems designed to elicit bias from your unconscious, so that people who believe they have no prejudice may be surprised by the result. In my case, the results show that I have a slight bias in favor of African-Americans—which is probably true.

Names of dishes

            I have been trying to figure out the difference between gumbo and jambalaya, since the numerous recipes I have clipped and downloaded overlap substantially, and are usually functionally identical. 

            The best explanation I can come up with is that gumbo is considered a soup, and jambalaya a rice dish. However, most gumbo recipes I have found also contain rice. Gumbos always contain okra—however, so do many jambalaya recipes. A dish in which you combine chicken or fish, sausage, rice, okra, various other vegetables, chicken stock, red pepper flakes, etc. can be other a gumbo or jambalaya.

            What makes this worthy of consideration in the Spectacle? It has been a continuing theme here, since the first issue, that words are essentially slippery and often instill more certainty in us than they should. They are mere frames which we use to encapsulate sloppy reality. Stews like gumbo or jambalaya, with their disparate elements mixed together, are cool metaphors for the world around us. “Language is highly over-rated as a means of communication.”