August, 2009

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Rags and Bones

A monthly column by Jonathan Wallace




            Five months in, Obama is shaping up to be overly cautious and centrist. This has guaranteed that we have made slow progress, if any, on the economy. The toxic assets are still on the banks’ ledgers; of more concern to me, people are still getting foreclosed in the millions and the cavalry, the program that would force the banks to refinance at lower rates or for lower principal sums, is nowhere in sight. Unemployment just went up another notch, to 9.5%.

            On the national security front, we still have Guantanamo, military commissions, and indefinite detainment without trial.

            The president is clearly the most intelligent person elected to the job since Kennedy, and possibly since Roosevelt. But he has become caught up unprofitably in the political process; the various tips of the hat to the right have not yet earned him any cooperation whatever from Republicans. He still has the chance to be a paradigmatic President,  remembered across the generations like Roosevelt; but he needs to do something fast or that train will leave the station soon.


            The use of scrip (paper IOU’s) in California in lieu of cash is frightening, one of the recent signs we have had, in addition to that ratcheting unemployment rate, that we are not yet at the bottom of this emergency. I have to admit that after moving most of my own net worth into federally insured CD’s last fall, I have been a little detached from the economic emergency, which has a limited impact on me personally; meanwhile, no-one seems to be playing Chicken Little, but every once in a while, you catch a glimpse in the press, that there are new shanty towns out there, that people are going without vital medical care, that things are getting worse in a way we haven’t seen in seventy or eighty years. My complacency in part may have been trust in Obama; but you can only feel hopeful for so long, without some action to renew hope.

Palin’s resignation

            When I practiced law, I had some low class shrewd-stupid clients, who manipulated me in favor of agendas which often proved to be stunningly inane. Sarah Palin reminds me of these. As a general rule, a governor resigning in mid-term would never be heard of again. She would have no power base to use as a springboard for the presidency; she would have pissed off those who expended millions to get her the governorship, and expected some kind of return; and she would plant doubt in the minds of millions that she would see the presidency through, if she didn’t have the patience to last a single term as governor.

            Palin seems to think she is somehow smarter than all that.  Scandals and adversity were wearing her down and making her ineffective; maybe in private life, she thinks she can remain all potentiality, untainted by failure and disappointment.  And certainly Alaska is very far away from the places she needs to hang out, in Washington and primary states. Everything depends on how cynical the powers-that-be still are in the GOP (the people who brought us the appallingly stupid and incompetent George W. Bush), and how dumb and unquestioning are the people who would have to come to her rallies, put wind in her sails, and vote for her.

            Personally, I hope this is Palin’s final big miscalculation. In five or ten years, I want to hear of her only as a Jeopardy question, something along the line of “What female Republican vice presidential candidate spent the latter part of her career competing on embarrassing reality shows?”


            In the scuba world, and probably in other risky or extreme sports as well, there is a saying that “people literally die of embarrassment.” The inexperienced diver, or the one who hasn’t dived in a while, knows to a certainty he is not up to the dive he is about to make. Maybe all of his prior experience has been in the Caribbean, in sixty feet of crystal clear water. Somehow he has gotten in with a group about to dive 100 feet in murky cold Atlantic water to a German submarine. He has a choice, to tell the others he will not make the dive, and remain on the boat ashamed; or to jump in the water and hope for the best.  Every year, one hears stories of the diver who drowned rather than embarrass himself.

            One of many insanely infuriating things about the way our world is run is that, above a certain level,  we die not of our own but other people’s  embarrassment. I thought of this today, reading Robert McNamara’s obituary. Across the years and the administrations of two Presidents, he sent 16,000 Americans to die in a war he, and his bosses, knew could not be won. The Vietnam conflict, looked at across the span of forty years, certainly was one of the most inexplicable and senseless of modern times.  Arguing an appallingly simplistic theory that Communism was unified and small countries were dominos, its strategists failed to predict the developments which followed in quick succession: Russia and China were enemies; China and Vietnam were enemies; Russia, China and Vietnam are all allies of ours today. It is almost impossible to draw up a shred of a reason why 58,000 Americans had to die. In the final years of the war, it was evident even to the unschooled that it was just being passed from administration to administration in the hope that it would utter its last squeak on someone else’s watch. McNamara’s later apologies were about as acceptable as Ted Bundy’s professions of regret for inflicting suffering on the families of the fifty or so women he murdered.


            President Obama’s response to the Honduras coup is reassuring, in that it breaks ranks with a century of U.S. support for the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Latin America and elsewhere. There is no possible reconciliation between our own supposed democratic principles and advocating the military reversal of election results in other countries.

            The Honduran president,  Jose Manuel Zelaya, had promoted some potentially anti-democratic measures in his own country; he was trying to eliminate term limits so he could serve longer, as other left-leaning elected officials have done recently in the continent. But the dispute should have been permitted to work itself out under established democratic procedures, in the courts, and in the press and public opinion.

            There are many self-proclaimed democracies in the world, but only a few where the culture of democratic choice is so embedded that the army does not regard itself as a reset switch under any circumstances. President Obama, separating himself from a long line of unfortunate decisions by almost all of his predecessors (Bush, Reagan, Nixon, Kennedy and Eisenhower all had prominent examples on their watch), may take at least some modest steps to promote real, not cosmetic, democracy in other places.

The Uighurs

            The rioting in western China between Uighur Moslems and Han Chinese also raises some implications about democracy. China of course is not one but a strange hybrid.  Dictatorships most traditionally have been under the strong and bloody domination of a single man, Hitler, Stalin, or Kim Il Sung, whose power extends even to ordering murder or mass murder with impunity.  The life of a dictatorship therefore typically includes several or numerous incidents of somewhat mysterious bloody internal score-settling and repositioning, such as the Night of the Long Knives in Nazi Germany when the SS overcame the SD, and various purges ordered by Stalin, including the one right before his death when he decided to kill all the Jewish doctors around him.

            One interesting artifact of Communism, now that the ideology has all but leached away almost everywhere, is the relatively lawful group governments in countries like China and Vietnam. The Soviet Union became one of these too post-Stalin, and in its latter years, was far more lawful and less violent than the putative democracy which has replaced it. One of the hallmarks of these kinds of governments is the disappearance of mass murder as a routine and frequent tool of policy.

            The most extreme dictatorships, such as Hitler’s, did not need to make much of a concession to worldwide values, though even Nazi Germany established a “show” camp,. Theresienstadt, to fool the world into thinking the Jews were being treated well. Even Soviet Russia in the worst years of the Cold War was sensitive to world values, claiming to be a democracy and to respect human rights.

            China, which mostly seems to want sincerely to be a stable, accepted member of the world community, is constantly struggling with the tension between the requirements of conformity to international values and the need to hold on to power over its own people. One truism about governments everywhere of every stripe is that people in power at the ground level want to behave in the most corrupt, self-serving way possible. From that point of view, local officials favoring Hans over Uighurs are no different from local institutions in the American south, collaborating in the oppression of black populations. Democracy, including national oversight of local behavior, press interest, and the availability of impartial courts, has proven to be a largely effective way of suppressing the greed, violence and stupidity of local officials.

            China is standing at a crossroads where it must decide which is more important—the justice and fairness to which it often seems to aspire, or an absolute lock on power and discourse.  Such problems never go away, but typically must be confronted in every generation. The issue was resolved bloodily at Tienamen, but it seems that China will soon have to make a definitive statement again. The tolerance of democracy in Hong Kong gives a little hope that those who rule China have a better understanding of how power and justice can coexist.

The health insurance debate

            I have said this before, but it bears repeating: the astonishing mission of the Republican party right now is to convince its own constituency that they do not need or want affordable health insurance. And it is succeeding, at least with the most primitive know-nothing types, those filled with dumb paranoia and suspicion, who came out in a counter-demonstration in Fort Myers this week bearing signs that said things like, “Think health care is too expensive? Wait til its free.”

            I had an interesting conversation the same week with a physician who said that he didn’t think he could give truly personalized care in a world of government health insurance. In the same breath, he recommended a $3000 test private insurance won’t pay for.

            My favorite thought experiment is to determine what I would want government to do, if I were one of 10,000 people forming one on a newly colonized planet. Since my chances of dying of untreated, or ineffectively treated,  heart disease, cancer or renal failure are far greater than those of my dying in a terrorist bombing, I want government to make sure I can get reasonable, free or affordable health care.  Financially, I am one of the more privileged people in America and by extension the world, yet when I received a $1600 bill recently for anesthesia during a colonoscopy I thought was covered by my insurance, this was a significant blow to my cash flow and savings. And may lead me never to have another colonoscopy. My perception that the health care system is completely broken in the U.S. is not based on reading the newspaper, but on abundant personal experience.

The moon

            Forty years ago, I watched the first astronauts leaping onto the moon’s surface on live television for a while with my parents, felt uneasy and distressed and went to bed while they continued to watch much later into the night. I think at fifteen I was already separating myself from their hopes and expectations for me; the moon landing represented something I would have loved, been fascinated by, were I still walking a straight line.

             Nonetheless, I was very sad when we stopped going to the moon. Today, however, I am very uncertain whether it makes sense to go back. The human race I would like to belong to, is the one portrayed in idealistic earlier science fiction, and would have Mars and even Jupiter bases by now; but the one I actually belong to is crazed and impoverished, and fighting suicide bombers, and warming its own planet to the point of chaos. I wouldn’t want to use the moon as a vantage point to meditate on an earth we can’t save, and less even as a platform for delivering nuclear weapons to an already beleaguered planet. So perhaps we are just not ready to go back.

Lies and spin

            Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court started yesterday. It is hard to imagine a judge who gives her detractors less purchase; she is so obviously smart, hard working, dedicated, well meaning, and professional rather than political. She unfortunately once made a couple of unguarded comments about being a “wise Latina”  and so forth, which is most of what they have to go on.

            I have been personally the victim of outrageous lies and spin, and found it really stings, makes you doubt yourself, to be treated so hatefully. When I was campaigning for Internet freedom of speech, I found myself opposed by a man whose job was to promote the spread of filtering software, censorware, everywhere. Any sentence I wrote could be twisted by him into quite unexpected meanings; a short story which didn’t push any envelope of language or sex got branded by him as porn, worthy of being blocked by his client’s products. I remember these experiences now and feel sympathy for Judge Sotomayor, who is being called a racist and worse by the liars and spinners. Back in the day, the confirmation process was supposed to be limited to deciding if someone was smart and thorough enough to be a judge. Now its an exercise in finding a word someone said thirty years ago which can be distorted into meaning he or she doesn’t deserve the job.


            One argument I didn’t think to make in last month’s essay on DNA testing was that the state, when it is possessed of DNA, ought to test it as a matter  of course, regardless of whether it is requested by the defendant. Phrased another way, a decision to prosecute should in part be based on the DNA results, as a matter of fundamental justice. In the future, I hope we will recognize that a state that prosecutes without having reviewed the best, most objective evidence available is being grossly irresponsible. DNA should no longer be a matter of tactics, of whether the defendant made the right request at the right moment in the process.

Natalya Estemirova

            I had never heard of this human rights campaigner, who was murdered this week by thugs who were likely acting at the direction of, or trying to please, brutal Chechen president  Ramzan Kadyrov. Reading the eulogies for her, I love her immediately. People like her are the heart and soul and therefore the humanity of our godforsaken species, and as a result they will always be murdered.  Nothing makes me feel more bitterly hopeless and rageful than the killing of gentle, nonviolent people for their independence and opposition to violence and cruelty.  Of course, hopelessness is exactly what such actions are intended to cause.

I idolize Gandhi, but am aware that Hitler once in a joking conversation with Neville Chamberlain advocated shooting Gandhi and his supporters. Which is exactly what Hitler would have done. Nonviolence as an effective political strategy can only be used against people too humane to follow cruelty through to its last expressions, like the British. Estemirova, trying to shine a light on the torture and murder in Chechnya, was entirely outmatched. It makes me think there are contexts where only violence is effective, and yet it leads to spasms of counter-violence and further violence which, unchecked, would end with the murder and suicide  of the last two humans on earth.

There is really no answer. Humanity is a fatally flawed enterprise. I just wish I could be there as some kind of a ghostly presence watching how it all turns out.

“I am moved by fancies that are curled, around these images and cling/ The notion of some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing.” T.S. Eliot

Professor Gates

            As a white person, I am personally embarrassed by the incident in Cambridge, Mass., the other day. An African American Harvard professor came home from vacation and discovered that his front door was jammed. He put his shoulder to it. A helpful white neighbor called 911 to say a black man was trying to break into a house. A white cop showed up and, despite Professor Gates showing identification and establishing his right to be there, took him into custody.

            Professor Gates was very upset, as he had a right to be. If it had been me, with my white skin, the incident would have ended in moments;  if the cops were called at all, they would have calmly gone their way after checking identification. Professor Gates’ anger was I imagine triggered by a certain suspicion and disrespect in the first place; the officer then had a very primitive reaction. Instead of apologizing and de-escalating the situation, he pushed back, as cops so often do.

            Professor Gates faces a disorderly conduct charge, but the real transgression was Being Angry While Black. The charges should be dismissed immediately and Cambridge and the officer should apologize profusely to Professor Gates. Likely the officer does not belong on the force at all. Maybe with Professor Gates’ consent and compassion, he can receive a second chance and will be more careful in the future.

Lying Sacks of Republican Shit

            It begins. I heard a television commercial yesterday in which a woman, purporting to be Canadian, bemoaned how terrible it is to be sick in that country, and how she came to the United States to seek treatment for her cancer.

            Despite some delays and glitches in treatment, Canadians are quite happy with their universal health care, which works rather well. In “Sicko”, Michael Moore interviewed Canadians who are afraid to travel to the United States, in case they should get sick or hurt here, and told the story of one man who was billed $40,000 in hospital costs for an accident he had in Hawaii.

             ,,,,,,,,,,As I said above,  the big Republican job will be to convince their own constituents that they don’t want or need affordable health care. This is how it is done, by portraying working systems as broken, without the least hint that our own system has crashed. Even then, a lot of the campaign doesn’t even rise to the level of telling coherent lies like this commercial; instead, its just the manipulation of a vocabulary of fear: “Socialism! Government! Take your choice away!”

            “Don’t you want to pick your doctor? Or do you want the GOVERNMENT to tell you what doctor to see?” What kind of choice is it if you will wind up selling your house to defray the costs of the kindly non-government doctors? What kind of lack of choice is it if the government offers you access to a wide variety of free doctors?

            There is an argument that people stupid enough to believe Republican lies don’t deserve efficient, affordable health care—social Darwinism in action. The problem is, they pull the rest of us down with them. How about a government-backed system they can opt out of? I want to live healthily and without fear, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to.