August 2010

Top of This issue Current issue

Rags and Bones

I have not discontinued the Colchicine column of book and movie reviews, but have been too busy and distracted to write it for two months. I hope to pick it up again soon.


The Times for July 23 reports on the increasing number of billionaires running as populists in the Bloomberg mold. Historically, only 11% of self financed candidates win their elections, but the trend may be increasing due to stark economic circumstances and the anti-incumbent mood. The irony of a wealthy Florida senate candidate driving into an impoverished neighborhood in a Chevrolet Escalade was not lost on the reporter.

The problem is that this is a profoundly anti-democratic trend. While such candidates are weakening or co-opting an existing party power structure, they represent a more powerful and dangerous one: the oligarchs the Village Voice used to call the "permanent government". They buy office with personal wealth and are then accountable only to themselves. Bloomberg easily reversing term limits is only a forecast of the day the first elected oligarch--possibly a president of the United States--sees no further need for elections.


The Times a few days ago also had a piece on a very sketchy diagnosis, "Ductal Carcinoma in Situ". This is a finding of cancerous cells in the breast in an extremely preliminary state, and was called by one doctor interviewed in the article "not an exact science" (an extremely surprising statement in medicine). Women are reacting to the diagnosis with intense fear, even getting preemptive double mastectomies. In some of those cases, a second review of the results says, "Sorry, that wasn't DCIS after all." Even if it is, the dangerous cells don't always blow up into full cancer.

As a microcosm of what is broken in our medical system, we are diagnosing an uncertain and very preliminary condition, then tolerating surgery and medication in reaction. We don't know how to pay for health care because there are too many tests and procedures available, sold as panaceas and yet too uncertain of interpretation or necessity.

Elie Wiesel

Wiesel recently bullied a theatre into canceling a play in which he was a character on the grounds it was potentially defamatory. This was an 800 pound gorilla move; it is doubtful he could have won a lawsuit based on what was not an unsympathetic portrayal in a work of fiction. More likely, he was embarassed by the truth, that he courted Bernie Madoff and invested money with him.

Primo Levi correctly said that surviving the Holocaust was not an ennobling experience. Wiesel is over-rated as a philosopher or writer, but has proven that he is as political, as out for the main chance, as anyone.

The playwright was also foolish. As a matter of common sense, there is no reason to portray a living person as a character in a play of this nature. It is asking for trouble. A new version of the play is going up now (in a different theare) in which the Wiesel character has a new name.

A historian's libel

A British historian trashed some of the competition anonymously and praised his own work on Amazon. This was childish and wrong, but it shouldn't have led to his paying damages and agreeing never to review on Amazon again.

His statements were mere expressions of opinion, which can't libel anyone. He didn't accuse them of being pedophiles or cat burglars; he simply said he didn't like their work.

Conversion to Judaism

An Israeli law is in the offing which will confirm the monopoly the Orthodox have over conversion to Judaism. American Jews are very distressed, because if passed, it will perpetuate the travesty under which people who convert in Reform or Conservative synagogues are not recognized as Jews in Israel.

The political primacy of the Orthodox in Israel--they are not central to power but must approve everything which happens--was the result of a cynical decision right after the creation of the country. Founded by secular Jews, Israel needed to confirm a religious identity, so a deal was made by the Orthodox--one which created a class of people who do not work (the men study to be rabbis and are supported by the state) nor serve in the army, but get to dictate policy to everyone else.

An Israeli I knew once said, "The next big war in my country will be between the secular and the Orthodox." Israeli identity and the treatment of Jews worldwide by the country which declares itself theirs, are at stake.

Shirley Sherrod

There are two main currents to this story.

1. The fringe right with impunity lies about people, using selectively edited video to create false impressions, and the more mainstream right-wing media (Fox and the Limbaugh-style bloviators) pick it up and run with it unquestioningly.

2. The administration folded like a cheap suit when it should have used this as an opportunity to confront the right as Welch did McCarthy in a grander day: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?"

BP siren

Why am I not surprised to learn the siren on the destroyed BP well was turned off because it kept waking people with false alarms?

Humans: a species simultaneously intelligent enough to design safeguards and alarm systems, and stupid enough to bypass them and turn them off.