May 2010

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Rags and Bones


by Jonathan Wallace



Israeli Human Rights Organizations


            According to an article in the April 6 New York Times, Its getting even harder to be a human rights activist in Israel. The police are breaking up legal demonstrations and even arresting organizers at their homes, while Parliament is on the verge of passing a really restrictive disclosure law which may deter people from contributing and joining and ultimately result in loss of tax exempt status.


            Israel has never really decided what it wants to be: a diverse and liberal democracy with a multiplicity of voices, or a monolithic Jewish state. The current rightist government is decidedly tilting towards the latter.


            There have always been human rights violations in Israel, of which the deliberate killing of activist Rachel Corrie with a bulldozer and the use of white phosphorus in dense civilian areas of Gaza are among the most notorious. The test of a democracy is not so much its ability to avoid these completely as to reign them in and take responsibility when they occur. The existence of dissident voices and watchdog organizations is key to the existence of a vibrant democracy.


For his next act
President Obama needs to keep the legislation coming, reminding his forgetful electorate constantly of his good intentions, power over his own
party and ability to stand up to the Republicans.
The bill regulating the financial industry is a good next act, and the Republicans are in a false position advocating for no regulation at a time
when people are very angry. Though all politicians are liars, it seems clear to me Republicans lie worse, consistently advocating inaction on a
false promise that vague, better action will be taken at some unspecified later time.
Home ownership
I was amused to read an article in the Times saying that the old truism about the advantages of home ownership is a crock. I have owned my own
place since 1997--my only house ever--and had been struggling with that concept myself. Putting aside the extremely subjective and trivial
considerations (like deciding what color to paint it, stuff I don't care about), the great American dream seems to translate into English as
follows. Money paid in rent is pissed away, but money paid towards ownership of real estate will come back to you many fold during the next
real estate bubble. Of course, the dark side of this is what has happened to millions of Americans in the last few years: if you miss the timing,
the bubble collapses and you are underwater, while the renters laugh at you. Personally, I hate being responsible for my paint, and my roof, and
look forward to the day when there is a super or a landlord I can call about stuff. The dollars my house represents, in a federally insured CD,
working for me quietly and without expenses (you never have to replace the furnace in a CD) seem so much lovelier and calmer. Yes, a CD never
unexpectedly triples in value, but was the American dream really about gambling?
The volcano
The news of people stranded in airports everywhere because of Icelandic volcanic ash came and went last week without really affecting us; we
weren't camped out in a Spanish airport, nor was anyone we spoke to. However, these events did evoke how small our planet is, how
uncontrollable our lives, and uncertain our technology.
As a child, I was astonished to learn that the ash from Krakatoa had darkened skies around the world. Really taking in the information that the
earth is only 26,000 miles in diameter is very startling; I don't think I completely took in that information until I owned a jeep whose mileage
approached eight circumnavigations of our planet. The Chernobyl explosion sent radiation all around the earth and supposedly gave cancer to at least
10,000 people worldwide who wouldn't have had it otherwise.
Volcanos, like tornados, are the epitome of violent, uncontrollable nature. Both happen very suddenly, and do terrifying damage. I remember
that everyone knew for quite a while that Mount St. Helens would erupt. There was one old man, coincidentally named Harry Truman, who refused to
leave, and indeed died the day of the eruption. A few years later, I remember hearing about the body of a murder victim, killed before the
eruption but only found long after, which illustrated some lesson about the consistent record of human violence against the background of natural
violence. Many years ago, I visited a traveling Pompeii exhibition, where the imprints of people in ash, like that of the young woman who pulled her
dress over her head to protect herself, were very poignant.
The reason we stopped flying for a week or so, was because nobody really knew what the tiny particles of ash would do the engines of planes. We all
get on aircraft as an act of blind faith that they will work as designed, that birds won't get sucked into the engine, that nobody will have
accidentally programmed the autopilot to fly through a mountain. In the meantime, the airlines flew test flights to illustrate that the ash wasn't
dangerous, faced with the alternative of losing billiosn of dollars. Humans, and men especially, have the job of being authoritative and yet
extremely foolish, like General Woundwort in "Watership Down" yelling "Dogs aren't dangerous!" or Custer riding to his Custerdammerung and
shouting, "Hurrah, boys! We got 'em!"
Health insurance
It is always interesting being able to illustrate issues of public ethics from my own experience. Two years ago, the COBRA coverage from my last job
ran out, and the $1000 premium for my wife and me was about to triple. COBRA is a failure; the group premiums you pay from your own pocket for 18 months are often prohibitive enough, and the individual coverage the insurers are forced to offer afterwards is probably affordable by almost
no-one ($3000 a month for two people!).
Then came a scare as to whether we could find new coverage at all.  I was retired, but way too young for Medicare. I searched for any kind of a
group which would accept me, and found none. The AARP primary coverage, now available to people my age, existed in other states, but not New York.
Just when my wife and I thought we would have to move to Florida or Texas, we found a theatre related nonprofit which offered group coverage to its
The initial premiums for the two of us: $672/mo., a savings over the COBRA premium we had been paying before. At the end of the first year, this went
to $772, and a year later (a few weeks ago), to $972, a 50% increase in two years. I pay much more for health insurance than I do for accident or
homeowners or life or anything else. This is with a $5000 in network deductible, making the policy extraordinarily expensive disaster coverage, since I do not spend $2500 a year on medical visits or medication. As retired people living on a modest income, these kinds of premiums are not sustainable, and it is no wonder there are so many people in this country without insurance.


Smart weapons
The President is giving the green light to a new generation of smart conventional weapons technology (non-nuclear, that is). As described,
these weapons practically have the ability to fly to 100 South Portland Street, enter the front door, travel up four flights, ring the doorbell of
Apartment 4B, ask the man who answers if his name is Joe Botz, then explode.
The problem is that smart weapons are as stupid, or inattentive, as the people who manage, aim and detonate them. A very old doctrine dating to
the beginning of the computer industry is GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. The smartest of machines is useless if driven by a lousy program. Smart
weapons are no different. If we aim one at Joe Botz and Joe Betz was intended, all the intelligence of the weapon drains away given the
stupidity of the human in control. And we are still killing innocent civilians in ways morally indistinguishable from negligent homicide, if
not outright murder.
A previous model of precision technology was the firearm, which if carefully aimed could put a bullet in a bad guy's heart while leaving the
innocent people on either side of him unscathed. Yet guns have been fired indiscriminately since their invention at innocent people, deliberately
and accidentally. Smart technology really will not reduce the slaughter.
The anthrax suspect
Scientists have come forward insisting that the anthrax suspect, who committed suicide, cannot possibly be guilty of the charges, that there is
no way he could have milled and deployed that amount of anthrax without anyone around him being aware, and in fact without killing people in the
This whole controversy, which may never be settled, illustrates how inadequate the FBI, or anyone else, is, at solving serial murder by
chemical and biological means. The 1980's tylenol murderer was also never identified. The randomness of the killing, the use of a remote means (the
mail, or tylenol bottles in stores) so that the killer himself does not approach his victims or leave any evidence, make it very hard to find a
smoking gun in these cases. If the evidence is inconclusive, we are also left with the unsettling knowledge that law enforcement, in its need for
closure and good publicity, is completely capable of placing responsibility on the wrong person. the FBI had in fact previously closed
in on another suspect, now cleared, who has successfully sued for the impact upon him of all the law enforcement and media attention. The
current suspect was driven to kill himself, an undisturbing result if he was guilty but a very unhappy one otherwise. Closing cases prematurely
based on circumstantial evidence is not only terribly, even terminally unjust to the innocent, but also allows the guilty to go free.
Greece's near, possibly impending bankruptcy, illustrates the limitations of the European Community, important parts of which (Germany in
particular) are behaving as if it was a group formed for good times that will not hold together in bad. It is as if our federal government was
considering letting California go down the drain, based on a series of convenience-based and legalsitic arguments that California is ot really a
part of our polity anyway.
A side effect of all the stress and unrest in Greece is that a very peaceful and nonviolent place has not been able to remain so. In 1978, I
spent a month in Greece and another in Kenya, two places that were safe at the time. I would not care to return to Kenya today,
which has become a far more dangerous place for Westerners (and locals) than it was. That year, I remember reading in the International Herald
Tribune that Turkey (which I also visited) had had 10,000 murders the year before. Greece had a few hundred. Greece is not as lawless as Kenya and
may never be, but the news photos of street riots there illustrate the idea that nothing stays stable, that human communities fall apart and tear
themselves apart, that on this small planet restless, unhappy, hungry and violent forces, from inside and outside a country, work relentlessly
against any balance that has been achieved. Isaiah Berlin said, "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no staright thing was ever made."



Save the last bullet for me
The New York Times for April 27 has a priceless front page picture of an extremely farkled Powerpoint slide entitled "Afghanistan Stability". It is
esssntially a mass of messy sphaghetti lines linking statements like "Popular Support" and "Tribal Governance". The accompanying article
describes how a truly scary proportion of our military officers, even on battlefields, spend much of their day preparing Powerpoint presentations.
It seems as if the military has been infected by that good old American middle management disease. I suspect you could harmlessly eliminate from any
organization any functionary whose job includes preparation of one or more Powerpoint presentations per week.
What makes Powerpoint so interesting is that, unlike other software tools which actually do something, like spreadsheets or word processors,
Powerpoint's main usage is to allow us to think we are communicating, when we are not. By reducing difficult, ambiguous, slippery ideas to little
boxes and arrows on a slide, Powerpoint reassures us that we have quite evasive problems under control. Like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A slide titled "Afghanistan Stability" (if it werent't so farkled) could actually make the audience think there can be stability in Afghanistan.
Wall Street regulation
Wall Street wizards (probabvly with the help of Powerpoint presentations) created some quite exotic instruments.  First, they bundled bad mortgages
together, on the theory that shit encased in brass transmutes into gold. They learned how to game the rating agencies, who published their
criteria, so that if an instrument met certain useless and arbitrary criteria, it got a high rating ather than the crap rating it deserved.
Then they sold this shit to unsuspecting and greedy customers. Then—and this is the glorious part of the Goldman Sachs scandal now unfolding--they
protected themselves by issuing other instruments which bet against the ones they had just sold. It is morally the same thing as taking out life
insurance on a hobo, then killing him.
While CD's and stocks and bonds are well understood and heavily regulated investments, nobody understands derivatives and thus financial instruments
which really had no more than the ghost of a shadow of any kind of semantic reality were issued and sold with no oversight. The Obama
administration is ready to change that. The REpublican response: lets not tamper with success, or do anything to weigh down the elegant scamps the
Republicans claim we need to run the economy. What does it matter if they have to cheat and destroy some customers to get through their day? That's
just the breakage on which the system runs.
The Pinochet award goes to....
 Arizona! I propose the creation of a little gold "murderous dictator" statue which can be awarded anually to the person or entity most
successfully trying toiemulate a murderous oligarch. The new Arizona immigration law (yes, the satte has its own foreign policy) will create a
polcie state in which any ethnic looking person--dark hair, olive skin, brown eyes, features which don't look like Cate Blanchett--can be randomly stopped by the cops and forced to prove they have a right to be in Arizona. The law creates a new loitering-type crime of being in
Arizona without permission.
It is only a matter of time before an American citizen with a dark complexion, who never thought when he left the house he needed to carry
his passport with him, gets arrested and deported to Mexico. (It has happened before, in California I think.)
Russian adoptions
Adoption in general is a sad moral morass. Lonely, sad, devastated people who in many cases can't bear biological children seek to adopt other
people's children, who were unwanted and all too often suffer from undisclosed ailments like fetal alcohol syndrome or the simple
psychological devastation of being unloved and institutionalized the first few years of their lives. Commerces in children to broker the introduction of sad parents to abandoned children. In nations such as China and Ethiopia, this becomes almost a kind of wholesale commerce in babies. In the world of the second law of thermodynamics, where everything tilts towards trouble, the matching of two lonely adults with a needy baby
doesn't always result in a newly empowered family motoring down life's byways. On 4,000 occasions since 1992, adoptions from Eastern Europe have
foundered when parents found their new children violent, unmanageable and unloveable and have sent them back to their countries, turned them over to
state officials or  warehoused them in places like the ranch described in the article, an orphanage which warehouses unwanted Russian children in
Montana. Some broken things can't be fixed that easily. Life is not a Powerpoint presentation.