July 2010
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

The Israeli raid

The Israelis are masters of being wrong while right. While the attempt to prevent the activists' ship from docking in Gaza may have had some validity under international law, the appalling stupidity of landing soldiers on the ship via helicopter is now evident. It was quite predictable that Islamic activists on board would defend themselves, and that shooting and death would result. Israel has now substantially alienated its greatest ally in the Moslem world, Turkey, embarrassed itself with the United States and made the world wonder again whether its leadership is in touch with reality.

Unemployment and self employment

After September 11,2001 I was laid off from a temporary job. I had been continuously employed from 1990-2000, had worked as an independent consultant for a year, then was a full time but temporary employee again when the economy held its breath and there was no work for me. I applied for unemployment and was told that the year I spent as an independent prevented me from receiving any benefits.

This was a ridiculous result from any perspective. If the policy of unemployment is to create a social safety net in a down economy, we shouldn't get too involved in issues of whether someone is an independent contractor or not. The world is full of people who have no choice: janitors and such like who are forced into 1099 status by employers too cheap to pay benefits. Most independents are not cash rich entrepreneurs, but people barely getting by.

This issue is at the forefront again in the Great Recession, where people who lost their jobs and cannot find new ones are turning to small businesses and consulting services in desperation. While the argument against unemployment benefits for independents is that they make no contributions to the unemployment system, the answer is easy: create an unemployment tax (perhaps optional) for 1099's. I would have gladly paid it when I was consulting.


Miranda rights are under assault as never before since they were created. Back in the day, police were expert at beating and sweating information out of suspects. Advisement of the right to remain silent has become one of the major cornerstones and correctives to inappropriate police behavior, including violence. Rather than coddling criminals, Miranda protects democracy. Speaking as someone who gets stopped by the cops inappropriately often in my own neighborhood in the Hamptons, it is hard to exercise your other rights, of privacy, free speech, etc., in the presence of a police force with unchecked power and little supervision.

Cheating teachers

Apparently, teachers whose own compensation and tenure are dependent on their students achieving certain scores on standardized tests are beginning to falsify results, or distribute the answers, in unprecedented numbers. We have come a long way from the days when the job was about the care and feeding of young minds, aiding them in their steps towards judgment and independence. The deadly (and dull) combination of greed and mechanical standards where the test, rather than knowledge, is the goal, lead to a complacent and clueless society, in which we know how to ace tests, buit not how to cap oil wells, build levees or fight wars.

Hamid Karzai

The President of Afghanistan seems to have come to represent a certain pathological weakness which is appalling to contemplate. He held a peace conference of various tribes, the Taliban fired missiles at it and he is obediently blaming the Americans and shielding the people who are trying to kill him. Karzai, perhaps accurately, thinks the Americans will be gone one day like the Russians, and is trying to do business with the Taliban; but when the U.S. is no longer there to protect him, the Taliban will eat him for a snack. He will be one of the remnants of history, like the South Vietnamese dictator and generals after the last American helicopter left Saigon.

Teenage troublemaker terrorists

The Times for June 12 has a fascinating analysis of two New Jersey teenagers, one Palestinian, one Latino, who ended up trying to join Al Qaeda together. Hate the world, fit in nowhere, wrestle with anger problems and violence, and there is a group out there, much like a street gang, which will reassure you that your anger and violence are needed, and good. What is so disturbing about this is that we never faced this phenomenon before. During World War II, there were no homegrown Nazi teenagers trying to blow stuff up. In the 1960's, we had some domestic terrorists, such as the Weather Underground, who may have been generated and recruited by similar means. But we had none who were blindly obedient to a foreign power, one which philosophically negated everything we stood for.

Obama and Leaks

The President is outdoing the Bush administration, prosecuting patriots who leaked information to the press. The most recent case involves a software guy, Thomas Drake, who saw the NSA investing in a technology he knew would not work, and ignoring a better one he championed. He obsessively contacted everyone he could within the government, and when he still hadn't prevailed in his quest, a reporter. Now he will do prison time, even though the plug has already been pulled on the wasteful, useless technology he fought.

Sting operations

Zealous undercover agents in some sting operations against potential terrorists seem to have converted disgruntled complainers into people who thought they were carrying out a terrorist plot. Like most things in life, undercover operations exist on a spectrum. At the most useful end,an operative places himself next to an existing criminal or terrorist, and finds out about his sources of supply and other contacts. In a worst case--which seems to be happening very often--the undercover operative provides the plot, the financing, and the putative weapons, and the "criminal" under investigation is nothing more than an easily manipulated dummy.

Morally, one could argue that someone who is willing to drive a bomb to a synagogue deserves prison, even if the bomb turns out not to exist. But some of these are people who might never have committed a felony in their lives if a persuasive undercover agent hadn't come along and worked on them, hard, a long time. The business of law enforcement should be to catch criminals, not create them.

Nigerian oil spills

Nigeria is another instantiation of the Libertarian paradise, a country without government. As a result, oil spills everywhere, is stopped only with difficulty and intermittently, and never cleaned up. A recent Times article interviewed fishermen mourning the entire loss of a traditional shrimp fishery. The complacent vision the Libertarians have of ultimate rational (and profit-oriented) business stewardship, if unimpeded by government, does not exist on Earth.


The Supreme Court rather to my surprise, came to the right result on anonymity of petition signatures. The argument was that people rallying to make homophobic discrimination state law should be able to do so secretly. The opposite is the better moral rule: anyone trying to change the laws of a state (as opposed to commenting on them merely) should be prepared to stand up. Petition signatures are action, not speech.

General McChrystal

President Obama had no choice but to fire General McChrystal for his insubordination. This appropriate procedural decision masks the substance of the problem, in which we are fighting an extremely Vietnam-like war with few options, weak allies and no easy exit. So far, the President hasn't seemed any more decisive than John Kennedy was, confronted by the compromises and lies of Vietnam.