June 2010

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

The Times Square bomb attempt

The attempt to kill hundreds of people by a 30 year old Pakistani, who had lived here 11 years and was a naturalized American citizen working in finance, is very significant and siturbing. Coming on the heels of terrorist killings and attempts by other middle class Americans, some naturalized, others born here, it seems to reveal two things. One is the pervasiveness of the Islamic fundamentalist mindset, which seems to provide certain humans with a perfectly integrated understanding that it is not only moral, but required, to murder civilians for God. A religion which tells you that you can commit any deception or cruelty for God apparently has very broad appeal.

The second insight, which is not limited to fundamentalism but pertains to other kinds of mass murderers, is the increasing ease with which people who have been personally disappointed by life, now turn to murder. The suspect lost a house to mortgage foreclosure. A few years ago, he presented as a model American immigrant, and now he is driving a car bomb into Times SQuare. Ideology may not be the only explanation. In any event, we seem to be headed into a world where3 murder is increasingly proposed as a means of self expression.

Attempts on New York City seem to be stepping up. A recent plot to bomb the subways was forestalled, but we can't be good and lucky every single time, and someone will get through. I feel as sure as I did after September 11 for a while, that we will see some horrific things soon.


I wrote somewhat haltingly about Russian adoptions last month. I think what I was trying to say is this: When you look around the human landscape-- politics, culture, custom and so forth--you can identify areas which are particularly rife with suffering, self deception and disappointment. Adoption seems to me to be one of those, where people in pain with powerful needs seek children who in some cases turn out to be broken. The self deception is the perception that the act of adoption will heal everyone's wounds, when often it does not. One of the saddest stories I ever heard was that of the family who sent their violent adopted Russian child to live on a ranch in Montana. They told the interviewer they could never take him back, but would never stop caring for him, or paying the ranch fees, either. Unlike some families that seek to return adopted children as if they were toasters under warranty, this one knew they made a lifelong commitment.

The market swing

The market crashed 1000 points briefly, reminiscent of the 500 point swing in 1987, both of which were caused by computerized trading. In both cases, it seems the programs did what they were intended to do, but with unintended consequences: cascade effects which mimicked human panic selling. Have we learned nothing since 1987? A quote from a broker in the May 7 Times is worth quoting: "There was no pricing mechanism. There was nothing. No one knew what anything was worth. You didn't know where to buy a stock or sell a stock."

It all possibly adds up to an argument against technology: when it can make things happen too quickly, faster than humans can account for, understand, or stop, there is an argument for the old way of doing things: people in a pit passing slips of paper.


Europe has decided to bail out Greece. There are some mutterings this may drag down Europe, that banks may fall rather than pull Greece up. Greece, one of my favorite countries as a tourist and amateur historian (highly recommended: a book called “The Hellenic Traveler”, alas long out of print), makes for an unsympathetic beneficiary, given a history of socialist over-spending coupled with rampant tax evasion.

What is most implicated here is the concept of Europe itself. A continent can't be governed by a loose affiliation of governments; a more unified one would be necessary, one that would have prevented tax evasion in Greece years ago, rather than stepping in belatedly to deal with the consequences. New Yorkers don't get to vote directly on the issue of whether to bail out California.

Tea Party

It is an interesting spectacle to see Tea Party candidates ending the careers of more “mainstream” conservatives. The Republican party seems to have created a monster it can't control.

While I understand and sympathize with some of the underlying motivations—against pork, corruption and invasion of civil liberties in particular—I don't see how we can get out of a depression by cutting spending and jettisoning programs. The extreme fiscal conservative approach always seems to me to lead back to feudalism. We will have a few barons, and everyone else in hock to the gills, working their land. Call me rigid or naïve, but FDR's approach seems to me to be the only way out of a depression, not Herbert Hoover's.

As I wrote a couple months ago, I also am very skeptical about the groundswell of opinion clamoring that we shouldn't be forced to have health insurance. What do these same people expect to happen when they have a heart attack or are injured in a car accident? Will they expect to be treated at the emergency room regardless of ability to pay, or are they honestly saying,”Just throw me on the sidewalk and let me die”?

The oil spill

Morally, Sarah Palin ought to be tasked with cleaning this up, with her chant of “Drill, baby, drill”! Where has she been this past month?

As technology gets more powerful, so does the potential consequences. We are somewhat used to this concept where nuclear weapons are concerned, but don't tend to think about it with regard to “old school” technologies like oil wells. I highly recommend an unfortunately out of print book called “Normal Accidents” by Charles Perrow, which contains fascinating case studies of how small errors cumulate to huge disasters. One of the most engaging chapters tells the story of how an industrial accident resulted in the complete destruction, by draining, of a lake. Title of a future history of the current incident: “How We Lost the Gulf of Mexico”.

Rand Paul

Of course he doesn't believe in the Civil Rights act of 1964, and I'm glad he said so. ideological libertarians believe personal liberty trumps equality. Any restaurant owner in libertarian world would be free to deny service to black people, Mexicans, Jews or whomever he chose. I once asked an ideological and, at the time, very young libertarian friend, wehther the shopkeepers in libertarian world could decide to starve someone they didn't like, to death. He said they could, and muttered, "But I suppose he could buy seeds and grow his own food."

Its good to know what the Tea Party types really stand for. I hope the electorate sees them clearly and votes accordingly.

Turning tide?

The recent primaries and special elections, and the unexpected triumph of a Democrat or two, plus some polling results (which I typically radically distrust), are giving me the idea that outsiders, Democrat or Republican, will be favored in November, not necessarily Tea Party conservatives. I feel a little hopeful that the Democrats will not lose as many seats as they were steeling themselves for a month or two ago. Also, as people like Rand Paul keep admitting what they really stand for, independents and moderate Democrats who might have crossed over will shy away in repulsion.

The Second Amendment and the reset switch

One of the favored sayings of the Second Amendment types is that their amendment is "the reset switch of the American revolution." In other words, our right to bear arms ensures that if government ever becomes intolerable, we can overthrow it again. While this sounds good in the extreme abstract, it has always bothered me that there is no built in answer to the question of who "we" are.

I thought about this again recently when the Pakistani man who tried to bomb Times Square was arrested with an impressive-looking weapon in the trunk of his car (rifle stock but fired pistol ammunition). Republicans howling about his ability to get U.S. citizenship and his Miranda rights refused to comdemn the fact that he could buy the gun. So the Second Amendment, of course, must be deemed to protect everyone who hates our government, including those who want to replace it with a murderous Islamic dictatorship. What if there are enough guns out there and enough frustration and the "reset" which occurs doesn't bring in anything which the vast majority of us would even recognize as a human, let alone a democratic, institution? I suppose you could say we will have gotten what we deserved.

Betting against the customers

One of the most fascinating moral dilemmas presented by the current economic mess is is that of credit default swaps. Companies like Goldman could sell you an instrument and then hedge their bets by issuing another one which made money if the one they sold you lost. In a moral vacuum, this looks like a reasonable business decision, allowing Goldman to sell you what you want while laying off some of its own risk if the first instrument which it backed goes south.

Introduce greed and a lack of regulation--human nature, really--and what you have becomes a scam. Goldman acquires an incentive to create and heavily sell an instrument it knows will fail, so it can bet on its failure. "Selling the customers what they want" becomes a mealy-mouthed excuse.

One aspect of this is that nobody should ever take insurance on my life without my knowing about it. Clients had a right to think that they were sharing the risk with Goldman, that all were in the same boat together. I could make up little parables about the drowning client who says "We're for it now," only to see the broker fly away in a little personal hot air balloon; but its easier simply to retell the old (if not politically correct) story about Tonto and the LOne Ranger, as the arrows fly heavy: "Well, Tonto, we've had it." "What do you mean 'we', white man?"

Gangster world

There is violence in the streets of Jamaica, where the U.S. is seeking extradition of a gangster who the prime minister relied on to get out the vote in a "barricade" area of the city. The reliance of elected officials upon gangsters in a democracy is a universal phenonomenon, and quite well known in New York City, lest we feel superior to the Jamaicans. Democratic systems are easily cooptable by anybody who can get the vote out. The susceptibility of unions to organized crime grows from the same roots.

The Arizona immigration law

Poeple who say that the Arizona police will not abuse the new powers given them by their state's immigration law are wilfully ignorant of human nature. Cops nationwide routinely stop dark-skinned people more than whites, even in areas where they take much more contraband off of white suspects. Every mistaken killing of a cop in plainclothes by a fellow cop anywhere in the country since 1995 has involved a black or Hispanic victim.

One strong reason given by urban police forces for not taking an interest in the immigration status of local residents is that they don't want to create a desperate underclass of people fearful of calling 911 or cooperating with police when needed. Arizona has boldly decided the opposite. As for the requirement that the officer have validly stopped the person for some other reason before inquiring into immigration status, cops everywhere have for generations worked around probable cause with inventive lies and excuses. I am white, but drive a crappy old car and get stopped once every couple of months while driving under the speed limit in my own neighborhood in the Hamptons. Among the explanations I've heard from cops: "You had your brights on." "You were riding your brake a lot."

In New York in the 1960's and '70's, there were an epidemic of "dropsy" cases: cops testifying that a hippie acccidentally dropped a marijuana cigarette or a bag of drugs in plain view of the officer. Cops will always ignore the fourth amendment when given an excuse. I expect serious horror stories from Arizona in the months to come. And I applaud the musicians, athletes and others who are refusing to play in Arizona, hold meetings there, or otherwise spend money or generate income in the state.

Drone warfare

Drone warfare is one of the unique moral problems of our time. A thousand years ago, warriors with swords and bows had to encounter intense personal danger in order to kill the enemy. Today, CIA employees recruited for hand eye coordination in video games sit at monitors in Langley, Virginia and fire missiles at suspected Al Qaeda members, often hitting civilians. It is a form of warfare where you can kill fifty people, then go out for a burger and milkshake.

A UN official has now issued a report proposing that American drone warfare be exclusively the province of the military, which at least has some visibility and accountability to the press and the public. The CIA since its inception has been the master of weasel moves, lies and deception, and at times seems to be only marginally accountable even to the President. While I can't help feeling satisfaction whenever it is reported that an Al Qaeda leader or Taliban commander responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians has been killed by a drone, the choice of individual named targets, especially away from war zones (such as the American born mullah who preached violence to the Fort Hood shooter) feels too much like summary execution.

Seventeen years after Bill Clinton's tragically mistaken policy began ending thousands of military careers, the House has voted to repeal it. At a time when a riven America simultaneously accepts, and discriminates against, gay people to an unprecedented extent, I am hoping they will finally have the right to serve openly in the military.

The Catholic church

I find it intriguing to compare the history of the Arthur Andersen accounting firm with that of the Catholic Church.

Andersen was convicted of fraud in auditing Enron, surrendered up its accounting licenses and vanished from the scene in 2002, after more than 90 years as a Big Five firm. The Catholic Church, after covering up decades of scandals regarding pedophile priests, carries on. How badly does a religion have to violate its mandate--of nonviolence, protection of the weak, justice, general ethics--before it goes out of business?

Churches are power structures like any other human institution. I doubt there has ever been an example of an organized religion that did not seek to gain, and hold, temporal power. Centuries of murder in the name of the man who spoke of turning the other cheek, are just one horrendous example. It is sad to note that even the doctrine of maximum renunciation, poverty and fatalism, Zen Buddhism, has given rise to organizations of human ego and greed.

Another lesson is that humans are wired for sex, and celibacy doesn't work.

Newsweek for sale

When I was a kid in the 1960's, I avidly read the weekly issue of Newsweek that came in the mail. That, and the daily New York Times, together created the definitive record of current events.

For me, the Times still does. I hadn't read Newsweek in years. I am still saddened by the fact that it slipped so far it no longer attempted to report the news, just comment on it, and is now for sale.

I think print media played a role the Internet and television do not. Print unified. People who read Newsweek accepted a particular mildly liberal-Democratic view of the world, which reinforced our ties to other such people as part of a community. Even then we knew that the people who preferred Time were different from us, and those who read U.S. News and World Report, probably more so. But Newsweek did not tell us these others were subhuman, or traitors.


The Internet, by its nature, promotes fragmentation into much smaller communities. Television has taken over the broad role print played, but not as a unifier. With its shallower coverage and easier polemics, television has ensured we are two nations who increasingly hate and distrust one another, Fox Nation and CNN/MSNBC Nation. Print, a cooler medium than television, could do more to smooth over or explain away our differences. Television aggravates them.


I am always amazed and amused by how rarely it is possible, in another person's house, to pick up the remote and use the television. Usually, there are pile of remotes, and once you have matched them to the different connected appliances-- television, cable box, DVD player--you are no further advanced as to which should be used, when, for what. It appears that every interconnection of these technologies is unique and fragile and requires very specific knowledge and training.

This reminds me that there are two approaches to technology in general--one that is "user friendly" if I can use a well worn expression, and relatively bomb-proof; and another which require special wizardry to use and maintain tools. The latter approach is the shield and protector of systems administrators everywhere, who thrive by being the sole bulwark of extremely fragile and crash-prone computers. Bicycles, which were bomb-proof in my childhood, have surprisingly evolved into fragility; it is possible to shift a 21 speed bike into a configuration which will damage the chain. Which, if you think about it, is just a bad way to design a tool.