May 2009

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Rags and Bones


By Jonathan Wallace


Doctors, lawyers and torture


I suppose we will be learning new and horrifying things about the inner workings of the Bush administration for decades to come. This week’s revelation was that CIA torture  sessions were attended by medical workers, probably physicians, who took blood pressure, checked other signs and symptoms, and ruled on whether torture could continue. The “patients” they examined were being water-boarded, subjected to cold, shackled hanging from their arms, and so forth.


These people, if doctors, should be identified and stripped of their medical licenses immediately, as they egregiously violated the Hippocratic Oath in a way which is not even slightly debatable or ambiguous.


I have been wondering whether to reach a similar conclusion about administration lawyers such as John Yoo who twisted the constitution to find ingenious but false justifications for torture. There have been some voices in favor of disbarring, or at least sanctioning, these attorneys.  I think they fall just on the other side of a hard-to-trace line from the doctors. By creating the intellectual justification, they certainly created the environment in which torture took place. However, their acts were purely speech; they never ordered anyone tortured, nor did they touch a torture victim as the doctors did.


In last month’s column,, I called Yoo and his ilk whores, and I stand by that expression of horror at the things they advocated. However, our Constitution, which created and is sustained by an adversarial judicial system, needs lawyers to stake out highly unpopular positions without fear of disbarment.  Sanctions against Yoo and others would deter people from taking hard positions in the future. I wouldn’t want a lawyer to fear disbarment for refusing to endorse torture, in some future crisis. On the other hand, the system doesn’t need doctors to assist torturers. Quite the opposite. Doctors who help torture have no continuing role in providing compassionate patient care, but have relinquished any claim to their profession.


In the years of response to 9/11 and the fight against Al Qaeda, Americans have undoubtedly committed serious war crimes under the Geneva Convention and other applicable international laws. Under the precedents set by Nuremberg, the people who elucidated the philosophy of murder are as guilty as those who carried out the murders. Nuremberg itself, as I have written elsewhere, was a legally dubious post facto punishment of horrifying deeds which were unfortunately quite legal under German and international law when done. Arguably the international law has changed since Nuremberg, to criminalize torture and murder. Even so, and assuming John Yoo is a war criminal, it is up to the International Criminal Court or other court with appropriate jurisdiction to punish him. Looked at that way, disbarment or bar sanctions would still be inappropriate unless and until he was convicted in one of those courts. It would be tantamount to punishing someone on suspicion of a crime which must yet be proven in another jurisdiction.


It is appropriate instead to criticize and oppose people like Yoo with the same freedom of speech they exercised. In the end, their greatest sanction may be to be reviled by those who come after us, for having taken the wrong side in a powerful moral debate.




            In last month’s essay, I examined the positions of the ultra-libertarian Cato Institute on the infallibility of the invisible hand. Shortly after, Cato bought a full page ad in the New York Times, signed by 100 people, described in the ad as scientists,  who don’t believe in human-induced global warming. One of the signers, a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University,  was profiled in an article in the Florida News-Press. The article disclosed that, though he teaches ecology classes, his degrees are in political science, psychology and other non-science disciplines. He was quoted as claiming that global warming was a United Nations lie in support of world government.


            Cato is a think-tank which advances the libertarian proposition that maximum freedom, and limited or no government, are good things when it comes to speech, guns and markets. Why would it take a position on a scientific issue, when that is not its forte? The answer is simple. If global warming either is not happening or wasn’t caused by humans, the invisible hand did not fail.  Like Winston Churchill urging the British to fight on the beaches so they don’t have to fight in the cities, Cato wants to cut off any discussion of flaws in markets before they become too pressing. (By the way, I wrote two position papers on First Amendment issues for Cato in the ‘90’s. My views and Cato’s on free speech issues are perfectly congruent.)


            Companies have technical and support staffs which analyze and correct problems with their products. Governments have complaint departments, newspapers have ombudsmen. More important, companies and newspapers have boards of directors, and governments are overseen by legislatures, bodies which have the responsibility to review mistakes and failures and put systems in place to avoid them. Everybody involved in almost any form of human endeavor recognizes that we are flawed and so are our creations. When a shuttle explodes, huge teams of people are deployed to find out why it happened, and how to keep it from happening again.


            Cato’s “product” is the free market. But when it blows up like a shuttle, Cato’s customer service department, so to speak, has only one statement to make: Our product is perfect. It can never go wrong or do harm. If something bad happened, it was somebody else’s fault (always the government’s, in the Cato playbook).


Universal health coverage


            In the New York Times for April 9 is an editorial by Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review entitled, “The Misguided Quest for Universal Coverage.” Unlike  Cato, whom he quotes, he sees a government role in expanding and protecting health coverage —but a bigger continuing role for free markets (the invisible hand as always).


            Presidents who have tried to institute universal health coverage and been stymied by Republican congresses include Roosevelt, Truman and Clinton. As a result, generations of Americans have suffered and died from inadequate or nonexistent health coverage while Europeans, Canadians and others quietly and successfully operate a single payer system. They see us rightly as an anomaly, our lack of coverage a bizarre American sidestep like our adoration of guns and rejection of evolution.  In our declining economy, the Republican burden increasingly becomes to convince people that they do not want or need adequate medical care, because if they had it, we might end up a brutal dictatorship like Canada. The liars are hornswoggling the baffled,  as always.


Backsliding on Roosevelt


            One of the by-products of the American political system is that there can never be agreement on the truth, no matter how much time has passed and how substantial the evidence is supporting one side of a debate. Dialectical processes such as political debates are supposed to culminate eventually in the truth. But, in a system which has apparently become degraded over time to the point where only victory is important, and never truth, nothing is ever decided or admitted. Thus, as we slide further into the present recession, powerful conservative voices are again claiming that nothing Roosevelt did brought us out of the Great Depression, that financial stimulus plans do not work, that only tax cuts and other incentives to the super-wealthy will accomplish anything (via “trickle down”). Its important to remember that many of these commentators also believe that evolution, an older doctrine than the New Deal, has no scientific validity.




            Our immigration system is highly fragmented and contradictory. In the conservative years, Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush (yes, I include Clinton, because he was dominated by Republican majorities and then willingly went along with them), the idea was something like this: Businesspeople, especially large, wealthy ones, whom we have elevated to the top of the American pantheon, need cheap labor. So we are going to look away and tolerate massive employment of illegals, in agriculture, factories, construction, and other blue collar jobs. At the same time, in an almost sadistic way, we will beat up and oppress those illegal workers, making sure they can’t put down roots, own homes, get medical care or education, or become legal. These two approaches read together—encourage illegal employment, oppress the illegals—are inexplicable, unless the idea was to create a modern equivalent of medieval serfdom, a world in which employers had almost life and death power over workers too frightened to stand up for themselves.


            I know from personal experience that many truisms about immigrant populations are false. The U.S., including the Hamptons where I live most of the time, is full of Mexicans who are incredibly hard workers, undemanding, glad to have the opportunity to earn money for their families and the chance to have a better life than was attainable back home. Another truism, that they are taking jobs away from Americans, is highly suspect. Before the Hamptons had so many Mexican and Latino workers, there were Irish people playing a similar role. There was never any evidence that there were sufficient numbers of native born Americans eager to be painters, gardeners, tree climbers and to do small construction out here. Part of the problem has always been that blue collar workers could never afford to live in the Hamptons in recent decades.  Commuting two hours in the morning just to get to a job site is rough (and also requires a car or good public transportation). The immigrants are willing to start out living under poorer, harder conditions than Americans were and are able to be closer to their jobs.


            The vast majority of illegals seem to want exactly what we do: the opportunity to stabilize their lives, buy a house, send their kids to school. To accomplish all this, they would like to become legal, register to vote, pay taxes and otherwise contribute to the communities in which they live. In the Southampton newspaper a few years ago, was an account of a success story, an extended Mexican family that obtained visas and green cards and pooled their resources to purchase a house worth, at the time of the story, a million dollars. Their next door neighbors seemed to spend their entire days spying on them and filing complaints with the town. If the Mexican family painted their house number on a rock in the driveway, their neighbors filed a complaint that the numbers were too large, or the rock too close to the street. I felt highly ashamed of these neighbors, seemingly ordinary middle class people (the wife was a nurse) driven by prejudice and malice. Yes, you ask, but would you feel the same way if the Mexican family bought the house next door to you? I can answer with great certainty that I would welcome them, as an addition to the vitality and diversity of the neighborhood.


            If you pull the lens back to wide angle, Americans have a very low birth rate and need immigrants, to do much of the work and  to help restore the balance of young versus old that is tipping in the direction of too few young workers supporting too many baby boomer retirees. If immigrants can help build the country and save Social Security, where is the harm? The truism that they come here to live on welfare and to drink is a complete crock. The only place in the Hamptons you see the Latino immigrants hanging out is next to the 711 in Southhampton, an unofficial hiring site where they wait for employers to offer them day work.   They are not in front of the liquor store. You frequently see them bicycling or walking miles on the highway shoulder to get to their jobs.  In general, I have never seen more serious, quiet, determined people.


            Local police sometimes go on campaigns to scare off the people who hire them, intimating they will share their identities with immigration officials. This is part of a nationwide trend where local police, pandering to local prejudice or with too little to do—or uninterested in pursuing the part of their job which involves stuff difficult to accomplish—nominate themselves to act as an arm of the immigration service. This is not only an unjustified blurring of the line between federal and state jurisdiction, but it also ignores some clear public policy goals. The result everywhere is that the illegals are driven further underground, their serfdom confirmed as they become fearful to call or cooperate with the police. In Southwestern Florida where I have been staying most of the past six months, the News-Press recently reported that illegal agricultural worker  are unable to establish accounts with the water company because they can’t comply with a new rule requiring them to show a driver’s license or other form of legal identification. The result is not that they leave the country, but that they are forced to live without running water. Ironically, whenever Hamptons politicians announce a new crackdown on illegal immigration, the summer hospitality industry is frightened that it will not be able to attract enough legal workers to operate all the hotels, restaurants and other businesses which depend on the illegals.


            The serf-like way in which we treat illegals is most disturbingly illustrated by stories being reported about the privately subcontracted immigration jails, in which people awaiting deportation are dying because deprived of medical attention, after suffering heart attacks or broken bones. They lie in their cells for critical hours or, in some cases, weeks, being told to stop faking. Then they die.


            The two contradictory policy initiatives—we need these workers, so let’s make their lives as poor and miserable as possible—must be reconciled, out of simple human decency. If we really did not need these workers, I would have no moral objection to building more effective fences and policies to keep them out. We have our own problems to solve and can find ways to help establish better conditions in other places, like Mexico, without inviting everyone else to come and live here.  If we acknowledge we do need these workers, and I believe we do, then we should also give them a roadmap to stability and the ability to join our community, through legal immigration.


Recount riot


            One of the purposes of this column is as a place in which to make short emphatic statements that don’t warrant full length essays. Here is one which has been on my mind awhile.


            The 2000 riot which prevented a Florida presidential election recount, orchestrated by Republican strategists, is one of the most dangerous things which has happened in our democracy in many years.


            Only briefly reported and then buried in the cacophony of other developments in the contested election, it has vast symbolic importance as an example of the use of force to determine the outcome of an election. There is no moral difference between a mob using its hands or fists to end a recount, and soldiers or a militia using guns.


            The fact that the riot was orchestrated by men acting at the highest levels of the Republican party makes me doubt the party’s commitment to democracy, process, fairness and the constitution.




            Nixon feared the United States would become a “pitiful, helpless giant”. Our military response to certain nontraditional provocations sometimes seems to justify that fear.


            For years, pirates from the Somalian coastline have been hijacking merchant ships and tankers and demanding ransom. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy has hovered by in ships of immensely greater firepower than the tiny boats used by the pirates—and yet has done absolutely nothing.


            This week’s rescue of an American captain held hostage was the first encouraging action against the pirates, who are weak, relatively few in number and have old weapons.

Why haven’t we done more?


            I think we are gun-shy, remembering incidents like the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incursion into Somalia. Much of the time our military seems to be afraid of losing lives, to the point of seeming paralyzed whenever small actions driven by political goals are concerned. After all, our track record in carrying off small, tactical commando actions has not been stellar. There was also Jimmy Carter’s raid on Teheran, where the helicopters crashed in a sandstorm and everybody died.


            Then there is the fear of civilian casualties. This is a real moral issue, yet is simultaneously a false one. I will discuss this in more detail below.


            Whatever the reasoning,  the world seems full of local people of violence who believe that they can act with impunity and that the U.S. will not respond. Reagan’s non-response to the killings of more than 200 American servicemen in Beirut, Clinton’s slight and very nonlethal response to the bombing of the Cole, are two more cases in point.


            It is worth noting that one of the first actions of the new American republic was to send forces against the pirates of the Barbary Coast. I would like to see us guarantee the safety of nearby shipping by shutting down the pirates of Somalia.




            An international law of war which requires combatants to minimize civilian killings is a good thing. Note that this didn’t exist as late as World War II, when the voices criticizing actions like the fire-bombing of civilian Dresden were neither widespread or definitive.


            Public opinion expectations that war can be waged without hurting a single civilian are childish and unrealistic. Weapons, even in the age of high technology and targeted munitions, are not precise. Combatants hide among civilian populations. The mass media, driven by the need to fill broadcast time,  and the culture of unrealistic blame and selfishness which seeks to name new victims at all times, contributes to a public perception that harm to civilians is a blameworthy spectacle, to be enjoyed and criticized at once. Meanwhile, terrorists and guerillas happily murder women and children,  while shouting from the rooftops that the U.S. does the same.


             There is no known way to exert force without harming people, some of whom did not deserve to be hurt. The question is whether the goal was worthy in the first place, whether its pursuit will avert harm to other civilians in greater numbers, and whether the use of force was applied in such a way as to minimize civilian harm within realistic parameters.




            Assertions which are presented as being self evident or intuitively true, which are not so at all and have little evidentiary basis, I refer to as “skyhooks”. There is a particularly delightful one on the Op Ed page of the April 14 New York Times: “[T]here’s  little doubt that humanity will soon explore and eventually colonize the Moon, Mars and the satellites and asteroids of the outer solar system…”


            Wow. Would it were true. My whole childhood I believed that man’s destiny was to travel to the stars . The fact that we haven’t gone back to the moon since the 1970’s, and have largely forgotten everything we learned about doing it then, the explosions of two shuttles, the strange preciousness and arrogance which has led us step by step to abandon science and manufacture while still lauding ourselves as the greatest race on earth, and the financial crisis which has sapped our nation of money to spend on optimistic adventures,  has made me lose hope we will do any of these things, any time soon. 


Tea parties


            Driving west on Route 27 today, I passed one of the anti-taxation tea parties the Republicans have been organizing. Good metaphor and marketing, as always. However, I think that the dichotomy between the Republican leadership and the rank and file, which has always been evident, is getting more obvious.


            Scratch the people at the demonstration and you are not likely to find even one whose taxes President Obama is planning to raise. Multi-millionaires tend not to come to demonstrations. The Republican core consists largely of middle class and working class people who buy into the ideas that markets should be free, religion paramount, abortion illegal. The Republicans badly need these people to win elections, but historically have done nothing for them. Instead, it buries them in bullshit, baffling, frightening and sometimes flattering them into giving their support, while enacting the very deregulation which has contributed so massively to the loss of work, houses, and health insurance by Republican voters. The latest blast of Republican bullshit involves blaming Obama for the economy, while letting off the hook the people who actually put us here.




Individual genetic medications


            The Times for April 16 reports that the number of genetic triggers for common ailments and conditions may be way too numerous to permit the genetic engineering of individual remedies. Personally, I hope that’s true. The day we all get control  over the quirks, foibles and deficits which make us unique, the day we all become the same. I know this is a fairly well-worn science fiction trope, but it appears true in the real world. The actress Jennifer Grey built the beginnings of a Hollywood career on her unique face, with a large nose, and (more importantly) the forceful,  playful persona which a girl who is charismatic without being traditionally beautiful develops. When, after some years, she decided to have a nose job, she vanished from public consciousness almost immediately, morphing into another forgettable bland blonde with no distinguishing characteristics.


            I can’t prove it scientifically, but I have the impression that the most physically perfect people you meet have the least developed personalities. They haven’t had to work hard for anything, suffer from doubt or overcome any deficits. Personally, I have many  faults and problems, some small, some severe,  which have made me what I am, including flat feet, poor spacial and navigational sense, inability to multitask, and a lifetime of disordered sleep. A genetic cocktail curing these and over defaults would relieve me of any necessity to compensate for them through the use of words and metaphor, or  through development of an interest in ethics and community. I don’t think that smoothing out all our little physical and neural differences from other people sets us free. Edmund Wilson, in “The Wound and the Bow”, argued that Philoctetes’ suffering from a noxious wound, and his skill as an archer, were inextricably bound up together. I agree.


Blue collar is better


Last month I ragged on Phil Gramm for his “nation of whiners” comment. Politicians and public figures shouldn’t make these kinds of statements, but I am just a private individual so I can say something similar without too much contradiction.


            I have more respect for most of the working class people I’ve met than for most of the middle class folk I grew up with. We were raised to think we were God’s gift to everyone, with a powerful sense of entitlement which stops just short of the people we laugh at on television for melting down when there is only 1% milk available and not skim. Thus we tend to whine and moan a lot more at the least set back. People who grew up in hardscrabble surroundings take life a lot more reasonably than we do, and are more resourceful while less demanding; they expect life to be difficult while the middle class expects it to be roses all the way. If civilization ended,  and I had a choice of joining one of two communities, one of lawyers, bankers and doctors,  and the other of firefighters, carpenters and construction workers, I would try to get into the latter, even though the former group had better medical benefits.


Friendship with celebrities


            In the last few years, through my theatre work, I have met a few working playwrights and one well known writer, and have tried to be friends with them. It hasn’t worked out to much of anything, and I have resolved to stop trying.


            When I was a teenager, I had a daydream that Mick Jagger and I became friends. He would take time out during a tour to travel and see me, and we would spend an evening smoking pot and talking. Even at fifteen, the daydream seemed problematic; I could easily figure out why I would want to be friends with him, but it was much harder to explain what he would derive from our time together. I tried to fill this deficit by imagining that I had some special wisdom, warmth or humor. (I believe that stalkers are people who believe this absurdity and slide into sociopathy.)


            In reality, the rich and famous tend to socialize with people at their level. As do the rest of us. There is a rule, I think, that friendships tend to be among equals. There are a lot of reasons for this. People who have a tremendous amount in common with us tend to be from our same background and at our economic level. In cases where we share something important with someone from a very different background, those differences frequently overwhelm the things we have in common. Wealthier or more comfortable people are deterred from friendship with the less fortunate because they fear they will ask for help. People leading more hardscrabble lives may deflect away from more comfortable people precisely because they don’t feel equal to them; they are unable to grab the check at lunch, or are jealous when visiting a friend’s larger home. If you ever had the experience of knowing someone who started out in your class, but became much wealthier or better known than you, likely that person dropped his contact with you at some point along the path.


            Friendships between struggling or “emerging” artists and those already launched tend not to work for the same reasons. We come into those contacts wearing our need on our sleeve: get me an agent, introduce me to a producer, arrange for your famous actor friend to do a reading of my play. At the same time, we have little to offer in return. I asked the most famous playwright I met if he would like me to design him a website. “Do I need one?” he asked, baffled.


            I made and followed a rule that I would never ask for anything—except offer free tickets to my plays. This is not an offer of course but a request: “See my play. The rest is up to you.” One is still presumed to be needy. Various people came to see various plays, said nice things, did not have time to socialize afterwards, turned down invitations to dinner. And I saw the extreme inequality of the relationship. Only one of these people ever sent me an email when I hadn’t sent one first.


            Various playwrights of the middle rank were interested when they thought I could make an introduction at a couple of prestigious theatres where I was in writing groups. I discovered that no-one has less influence at a theatre than a member of the playwrights’ group. When I failed to get them readings, they faded away too.


            I have no problem with any of this. Honestly, the prospects of any of these contacts turning into a real friendship was slight. It was impossible for me to eliminate from my mind the hope someone would open a door for me, and this inevitably turned me into a kind of supplicant even if I didn’t ask anything, exactly the type of person that successful people find most tedious. (The industry term for people who come up when you are relaxing over dinner in a restaurant and hand you their work: “script flingers”.)


            You do hear of artists mentoring younger artists. Sometimes they are having sex with them. Sometimes the younger one is carrying their briefcase or babysitting their cats. In any event, no-one owes anyone a mentoring relationship, or a friendship. What I brought away from these encounters was a renewed resolution not to put myself into circumstances in which I feel unequal or needy. The click that I felt at this moment was similar to the one I had when I decided, years ago, not to play tennis. I wasn’t any good at it, didn’t get any pleasure from it, got out on tennis courts because society seemed to have some vague expectation I should—but the people I was playing with weren’t enjoying it either. Sometimes its better just to walk away. 


Women in plays


            I increasingly find myself writing scripts for all female characters. At the risk of sounding sexist or dewy-eyed, or both, I find myself believing that women have everything men do (except for a little biological trick for starting development in an egg) and more.


            You write a script with all males and there is a grace note missing. You wind up with a story of discordant losers banging off each other, a la “The Iceman Cometh” or “Glengarry Glenn Ross”. Write a script with all female characters, and you can have all the same adversity, politics, anger and intellect, and beauty and harmony as well.


 More on torture


            More revelations on our applications of torture. The techniques we used, of waterboarding, cold, nudity, and cramped positions, were all borrowed from a training program, SERE, which trained pilots and special forces to withstand techniques known to be used by Communist captors and which had been quite successful at inducing false confessions. Moreover, Japanese military had been tried as war criminals for the use of these same techniques. No-one who had ever actually interrogated an enemy combatant, or made a study of torture techniques or (like John McCain), been subjected to torture, believed that these methods were likely to elicit truth. Nonetheless, the top two Al Qaeda captives were subjected to waterboarding hundreds of times apiece, in one case on orders from CIA superiors, long after the interrogators who saw him every day believed he had nothing more to offer.


            The advocates of torture were crazy, cruel ideologues like Dick Cheney and John Yoo, who had no direct experience of combat. I have the impression of a system run by sadistic clowns, with Dick Cheney as the clown prince. The shit sticks to everybody, including Condoleeza Rice and various congressfolk, who were briefed on the methods being used and failed to stand up in protest.


Immigration again


            In the New York Times for April 23 is the story of a woman who was arrested and held for deportation, and then stripped of her parental rights in her toddler child.


            This is a stunningly cruel story, making me wonder with what kind of depraved people I share United States citizenship. Her child was given by a judge to a local couple  to adopt on the grounds she had abandoned him by being arrested and held. Some of the papers served on her via mail were returned undeliverable to the court by the immigration service; other papers which arrived were in English, which she could not read. She was denied effective assistance of counsel, and when she finally got a lawyer willing to handle the custody case, and an interpreter, the adoption had been finalized.


            This treatment gives the strong impression that illegals are welcomed here so that they can be exploited, not just for their labor, but even for the fruits of their loins. This woman benefited someone through her work. In return, she will wind up back in her native country, without any wealth, with no legal status, and bereft even of the baby she bore here.


            The law is almost universal, that children belong with their biological parents. In fact, our visa system pays official attention to the goal of re-uniting families. To use immigration law as an excuse to take a woman’s child away is unconscionable. The judge who did it lacks the compassion and honesty to serve on the bench.


Mortgages and responsibility


            A few days ago, the Times reported on MERS, a company whose name sounds rather like that of a flesh eating bacteria (MRSA). MERS exists to protect the actual owners of mortgages from public knowledge and responsibility for what they bought. As part of its service, MERS acts as a beard for actual owners, appearing in court (or more properly, allowing employees of the true owners to use its name). At least one Florida judge, according to the article, has refused ever to issue a foreclosure order if MERS is the plaintiff. Desperate homeowners and their representatives, trying to find someone who will negotiate mortgage terms, are usually unable to get beyond the MERS receptionist. An interesting sidelight is that in the case of many assigned mortgages now in the vast MERS database, the original paperwork can no longer be found.


            This is wrong. Free market capitalism does not require that lenders be able to become invisible to the borrower, or decline all responsibility for supervising or renegotiating their loans. As a public policy matter, MERS should be pierced on the end of a large, painful spear. Also, no mortgage owner should ever be able to obtain a foreclosure without bringing original documents to court.


Israel hops the track


            It is very painful that the new Israeli administration has backed away from endorsing the two state solution. While Palestinians, and particularly Al Fatah,  bare some of the responsibility for not showing more progress on their side, Israel carries most of the moral burden of having backed away from the one solution which has a chance of success.


            This has happened before. Ariel Sharon made a deliberately provocative trip to the Al Aqsa mosque, inspiring fatal rioting and torpedoing his liberal predecessor. The Palestinians are not the only side which knows how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. However, the Israelis  are now likely to spend some more years fighting and dying before they arrive back exactly where they were yesterday.


            The whole conflict is like that. If peace ever arrives, it will resemble a solution which could have been worked out in 1948, saving tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars.


Swine flu


            I find the swine flu panic rather amusing, having waited a year at a time during this decade for first SARS, then bird flu, to decimate millions. Not that it can’t happen. If we panicked every time the media told us to, however, we’d exhaust ourselves pretty rapidly. In the 1980’s, I remember staying home from work and taping up all my windows for a hurricane which never came.


            Pandemics are one more example of the world being run by people who don’t know what they are doing. No-one can predict whether a flu strain or other virus will go global, or mutate to become more lethal. That doesn’t stop either the journalists, or the people they quote, from chattering on about it. There’s a lot to be said for waiting to see if the damn thing really takes off, then mobilizing expertly and quietly to do the necessary. I am starting to think there is an inverse relationship between chattering and competence.


Arlen Specter


            I am mischievously glad that Arlen Specter has become a Democrat. His decision to switch is very expressive of the suicidal tactics of the Republican party, which should have been doing everything it could think of to keep him in place. Instead, the party was using all of its money and smarts to replace him with a far right candidate who could never win the next election. The Democrats, with perfect confidence that they would have a Democrat in place in Pennsylvania soon, managed to get one now instead. When Al Franken is finally seated as senator from Minnesota, the Democrats will be filibuster proof, which is amazing.


            I never understood why Specter stayed a Republican after the insult he was handed in 1995, when he was the only Republican presidential candidate of nine not invited to its annual meeting by the Christian Coalition, which was a very influential component of the GOP, back in the day. Was he ignored because he was liberal? Pete Wilson, governor of California, was also a liberal Republican, but he was invited. Was Specter snubbed because he is Jewish? You decide.


            Specter has been a martyr for decades to the proposition that the GOP could be diverse enough to include a variety of ethnicities and viewpoints. Reagan created the “big tent” idea in 1980, the year Specter was elected, but it had definitively ended by the days of speaker Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America twelve years later, when some Republican remarked that “a big tent is for clowns”.


            Time for Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and maybe even John McCain to switch to the party where they belong.


            Meanwhile, the core Republicans can groom their hatred of evolution, disregard of global warming science, desire to blend church and state and their love of guns, in the hope that these precepts will propel them back to power—in twenty years.