December 2010

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace


I love to vote. My wife and I were in the Amagansett fire station at about 11:30 this morning and were the 156th and -7th pople to vote there today. This seems very light, given that there are many thousands in the village, even in wintertime. First time with the new machines. I badly miss the "thunk" of the lever you pulled in the old, curtained voting booths--to me that was the sound of democracy. Filling in ink circles on paper ballots, then feeding the scanner--not as satisfying.

I voted the straight Democratic line, as a sign of solidarity with the sinking, dwindling party which deson't deserve it. Usually, I leave blank the candidates I know nothing about--for judgeships and the like-- but this time voted for everything and everybody. Afterwards, I regretted I didn't vote any available Democrats on the Working Families line, which seems to have the virtue of being angry and cohesive, if small.

This is my second election as a registered Independent. I foreclosed myself from the opportunity of voting in Democratic primaries, where I might have made some tiny difference, because I really can't abide the party any more and did not want to be identified. Increasingly I think parliamentary democracies are so much better than ours, which is devolving rapidly into a one party state.

The results

The Republicans captured the House, with a gain of at least 60 seats, the largest increase since 1948, bigger than the Republican landslide in 1994. What this means, of course, is that the Obama administration has been knee-capped; no significant work will get done now, any more than any got done after the Clinton losses, and perhaps he will be a one term president. What astonishes me is that the forgetful, rather stupid and credible American electorate has forgiven the Republican party for George Bush, and particularly for the completely unnecessary incursion in Iraq which has cost thousands of American lives, for the Katrina bungle, and most of all, for the crash of the economy in 2008. I think that the middle and working class voters who elected Republicans are voting against jobs, health care and mortgages for themselves. In other words, they are abject tools like the people who supported Hitler to their own destruction. The Republican mission now will be to make sure no work gets done. But a Republican domination of the presidency and both houses would also only mean pandering to the rich and stepping on the rest of us, with the result that American economic and political greatness will become a mere memory.

It was a relief that some of the biggest wing nuts endorsed by Sarah Palin didn't get in: Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, and apparently Joe Miller in Alaska (a particular slap in the face for Palin).

The big loss in the House, however, makes it clear that Democrats have not been able, or allowed, to be effective Presidents since Johnson decided not to run for re-election in 1968. That's a long damn time. Jimmy Carter was a one term President, Bill Clinton served two but got knee-capped via Republican majorities and impeachment, and Barack Obama has now similarly lost the ability to carry out his agenda. It raises the question of whether the Democrats, who turn on each other so easily and pretend to be Republicans, are entitled to call themselves a party. They really aren't, and I wish they would fade away like the Federalists and clear the way for a liberal left party which can be proud, cohesive and unafraid. the alternative is effectively one party rule, a la Putin in Russia, a terrifying prospect and the end of American democracy.

Fucked twice

Most Americans lost as much as thirty percent of their net worth in September 2008, fucked by speculative bankers and brokers gambling with other people's money (many or most of them cushioning themselves by investing in derivatives which gained value if mortgage backed securities failed). Not only were there no legal consequences for most of these people, they are now complaining abroad about the "cold" American climate, while Republicans work furiously to make sure that they will not be taxed more highly or lose any traditional tax breaks. So we are being fucked a second time. If you run the Republican message through the neurolinguistic processor, what comes out is: We must pamper the rich because they are your only hope; not allowing them to fuck you means stagnation, unemployment, further decline. Even this is a lie; the real statement would be: We pamper the rich because we, your politicians, are of them, or want to be of them, or at any event are owned by them.

Emergency room sidewalks

I want to ask people who think it is their god-given right to refuse health insurance what they expect should happen when they arrive at the ER. If they expect to be treated, they are ignorant idiots who willingly swallowed the Republican and Tea Party propaganda line. If they answer, "I recognize that I should be left to die on the sidewalk if I have no coverage", they at least are thoughtful, consistent and truthful. If they expect to be treated at taxpayer expense or out of the hospital's own pocket, they are not "small government" people or "capitalists" in any real sense of the word. In the several years since I retired from working on ambulances, a stunning number of the hospitals to which I took people have closed, including St. Clare's, Beekman Downtown and most recently, St. Vincent's in Manhattan; Parkway in Queens; St. Mary's in Brooklyn; and the beat goes on. We lost all these hospitals because of people who came into the ER and couldn't pay. It occurs to me that the super-conservative super-rich who oppose "Obamacare" can afford to pay for medical services out of pocket; but one of them who gets stabbed in the Village, now that there is no longer a trauma center at St. Vincent's, will have to be driven ten minutes further away to Bellevue, which can mean death for a bleeding person. All your wealth won't put the ER any closer.


The Times for November 11 and 12 had two installments in a series about Chinese mental institutions. In short, you may not get admitted even if, in full schizophrenic delusion, you attempt to murder your neighbor. But you may get institutionalized very easily if you file a lot of petitions with the government asking for redress of a grievance. China is an ally which shows some glimmerings of a desire to democratize, but has an awfully long way to go. On the other hand, I am not sure dissidents (if there are any, we have become a very complacent people) will be treated any differently here in another thirty years.


Retired GM workers who lost everything they had invested in their employer's stock are being offered the opportunity to buy the new, post-bankruptcy issue at the insider price. Looked at one way, it is GM's (rather minimal) effort to make some slight reparation to the people it screwed. Looked at another way, it is an opportunity for the workers to be exploited and harmed a second time. I hope anyone who accepts the offer flips, rather than holds, the stock.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

Not sure I have ever mentioned her in the Spectacle before. She is one of the few people in the world I unreservedly admire. Good thinking and grace in a terrible situation.


A referendum measure passed in Oklahoma holding that courts could not look to Islamic or international law. Taken together with opposition in many places, including NYC, to mosque building and extremist claims that Islam is not a religion (don't even know what to say about that one), this is more evidence that we live in ugly, primitive, frightened and mean times. It was a non-issue in the first place, as there is apparently only a single instance anyone can find (in New Jersey) of a court applying sharia. Ending reference to international law, on the other hand, would really isolate us from the world and put a significant roadblock in the way of international commerce. I am reminded that, thirty years ago in Paris, I met a girl from Norman Oklahoma who said: "Those Italians really like white women."

The mystery missile

I am fascinated by the video of what seems obviously the contrail of an object launched from the water or an island off the California coast. If our government is not lying (and who knows?) and really did not launch it, is any one looking into the next obvious idea, that it was an attempted terrorist attack of some kind?

Social security

Starting to receive it when I am 62 and a half is a major part of my planning for the future. There is disquieting talk of raising the age of eligibility. On the one hand, I have always known the system is a sort of ponzi scheme and believe it can't sustain itself forever as the population ages. On the other hand, I made lifelong payments into the system based on an understanding which may now be unilaterally changed. Nobody is offering me a refund.

The START Treaty

After hundreds of hours of negotiations with the White House and billions of dollars of concesssions by President Obama to Republican requests for modernization of our nuclear arms, Republican Senator Jon Kyl has just announced there will be no vote on the START treaty with Russia during the lame duck session. The real reason: The doctrine of complete gridlock, of not permitting the Obama administration to get any work done whatever. That way, at least in theory, people not voting Republican out of conviction will do so from desperation. As we continue our devolution to a one party state.


Quoted without comment from the Times for November 17:

[W]e shouldn’t plunge ourselves back into another economic slump by raising taxes and cutting spending too quickly. President Franklin Roosevelt made that mistake in 1937, and this time (one hopes) the country won’t be able to rely on war mobilization spending to undo the error.

In the short term, we should actually spend more.

Much ado about earmarks

If campaign contributions are legalized bribery, earmarks have always been a form of legalized extortion: if you want to pass your legislation, build a bridge in my district. I think banning them is a Good Thing, and I don't mind if it gives more power to our seriously weakened executive branch. However, at three tenths of a percent of total federal spending, it is also much ado about very little. Finally, I predict that most eager beaver Tea Party electees will be corrupted by the Washington environment and will be earmarking avidly before too long.

Web wiretapping

The FBI is pushing, with some support elsewhere in the government (and also apparently some dissident voices) to ensure that new Internet technology will be designed with built in wiretapping abilities. The phenomenon of developing new technologies with law enforcement in mind is novel and disturbing, especially in an environment where the trend away from warrants and other constitutional protections is palpable. A lawyer acquaintance who should know said a couple years back that you should just assume that anything you send or say is being monitored.

Ahmed Ghailani

The acquittal of Ghailani on 284 out of 285 counts in his civil trial for being an accessory to the Tanzania embassy bombing will be used by the ravening right as proof that terrorists should not be committed to civil trials but handled by military commissions, or perhaps shot out of hand. This ignores the fact that Ghailani may still receive a sentence of life imprisonment on the one count. Also, if anyone is to blame, it is the CIA for torturing Ghailani, making all the evidence derived from his interrogation "fruit of the poiisonous tree". At least one family member of an American killed in the bombing recognized this, telling the Times:“I can’t help but feel that the evidence in the case would have been stronger had Ghailani been brought to trial when he was captured in 2004.”

There is an intriguing back story which may never be fully disclosed. It was reported that a juror (apparently in the process of hanging the jury) asked to be removed because she did not want to endure the anger and spite of the others. The judge declined. What isn't known but likely: The conviction on one count out of 285 was probably a horse trade. We don't know if it was eleven for conviction vs. one for acquittal or vice versa; I suspect the former. In either event, the jurors decided, as they frequently do, to compromise. Whoever was holding out for acquittal on all counts (whether it was one person or eleven) agreed to convict on one, just to get out of there and go home again.


California's budget shortfall is everyone's fault: the people who sold or bought mortgage-backed securities and put us all in the crapper; mismanagement by California's Republican governor and its legislature; but it also has one somewhat unique cause: direct democracy, the referendum process, more pronounced and more often used there than in most states, whereby ignorant voters can decide to spend money and cut taxes while lacking any idea of the consequences.

The Supreme Court

An interesting piece in the Times for November 18 reports on the degradation of the Supreme Court under John Roberts. Opinions are fuzzier, longer and more fragmented than ever before, and giving less guidance to lower courts than they ever did. Brown vs. Board of Ed was 4,000 words, but the Court's most recent utterance on segregation was 47,000. Roberts apparently believes in what the article refers to as false unanimity, getting a majority result expressed in an unprecedented number of separate concurring opinions. Many concurrences, instead of one strong majority opinion, tend to leave lower courts without a clear path to follow.

Silvio Berlusconi

Italy's Berlusconi may represent the future of American politics: the unrestrained billionaire businessman- politician-clown, whose oligarchical control of the system gives him near total license to be chaotic and corrupt.

Lisa Murkowski

She won as a write in candidate in Alaska, meaning that Alaska voters blacked Sarah Palin's eye for endorsing Murkowlki's Tea Party adversary, Joe Miller. Yay.

Nancy Pelosi

I am glad the House Democrats re-elected her (this time as minority leader). She seems an effective and pragmatic leader, simply unable to counteract the lies and vituperation of the Republicans in large part because she did not receive enough help from the President and the party. People who want her out would allow the Republicans to decide who runs the Democrats. What we need is more Pelosi, not less.

Income Inequality

From the November 18 Times (op ed column by Kristof):

The top 1 percent of Americans owns 34 percent of America’s private net worth, according to figures compiled by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. The bottom 90 percent owns just 29 percent.

As we slide towards a Berlusconi style oligarchy.


The first gift of the Republican party to the working class and lower middle class people who voted to give them a House majority: a refusal to extend unemployment benefits, expiring December 1.

Tuchman's Law

It helps at times like these to remember Tuchman's Law, as stated in "A Distant Mirror", which I am reading now:

Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening, on a lucky day, without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman's Law, as follows: "The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold (or any figure the reader would care to supply)."


What a sad spectacle: a country which was so late to the table, with such an ingrained culture of poverty and Catholic resignation, blooming and transforming into a safe, clean, inclusive, capitalist haven. I remember when software companies started creating programming centers there in droves, well before the growth of similar activities in India. Now Ireland, having trusted and emulated the United States, is back on the floor, its banks failing, its government falling, in need of a bail-out--impoverished again, but without its old culture of poverty and resignation for comfort.

It makes you realize that civilizations don't only fall when barbarians invade. They fall from within when they get greedy and complacent, and they bring their friends down with them as well.

Peace in Afghanistan

Turn out the senior Taliban commander we were negotiating with--and giving scads of money to--was an impostor. Not Taliban at all. That's funny, but really sad. Motto for our Afghanistan effort: "Everything you think you know, is wrong."

I give up

Obama isn't tough enough to be president. The Democrats aren't courageous and cohesive enough to be a party. Let the deluge come.


Referendums are the last refuge of a scoundrel. The Framers (as I reiterate at more length in this month's lead article) were against direct democracy because it is so frequently used to stir up irrational passions (which they called "faction"). Referendums like the one in Oklahoma banning reference to international and Sharia law, or the famous series of inane propositions in California cutting taxes while raising spending, are attempts to trick an ignorant electorate into approving measures not in the public interest, proposed by ideologues or private interests.

Now Israel's right-leaning legislature has passed a law that there will be no yielding of territory in a peace treaty without a public referendum. This too is a use of faction and public emotion to make sure there will be no peace. Some of the right wing supporters have admitted as much. Tzipi Livni, one of the last intelligent voices of moderation in Israel, said that peace decisions are the responsibility of leaders who understand the full scope of the problem in all its nuances. "The people are not a substitute for such leadership."

The pope

I am vastly entertained that he told a reporter that gay prostitutes should use condoms, while continuing to oppose their use by heterosexual married people.

Computers and American exceptionalism

My main machine these days is a HP Mini 110 netbook, replacing the Acer which was crippled by viruses and malware. The Mini is a terrible lemon. On a good day, I constantly get the message that a script has slowed or stopped on the web page I am viewing; eventually the computer will slow down so much I must restart it. On a bad day--and every day has been bad, this week--it suffers a crash so severe that the "Shut Down" button and CTRL-ALT-DEL don't work, and I have to turn the computer off and on again. One day last week, it displayed an alarming message that Windows would not start again, and I had to go through a series of steps to roll back an update I was unaware had happened, and restore to a prior condition (last working state of the OS).

If this was unique, it might not be worth writing about. But every computer I have had in years was a lemon. The last time I had a stable PC whih I was able to rely on for five years or so was probably in the early '90's. Since, I have had a succession of (mainly) laptops, most of which crapped out in under two years, and some in less than one (like the Mini, which I bought in September).

It occurs to me that this is related to the condition of the United States itself, our long decline since World War II. At some point decades ago, American cars became synonymous with crappy, badly designed and made, gas guzzling wrecks. In the 90's I owned Japanese cars and whenever I rented a homemade vehicle, was astonished how poorly assembled it was; the steering wheel always felt loose, there was always some part of the assembly or exterior of the car which rattled as you drove or which was peeling off.

While the Mini itself was probably manufactured overseas, as was the Acer, I suspect the gross problem with the computers I have owned is in the very flakey OS which Microsoft has foisted on us lo these many years. Of course, the flight of manufacturing overseas itself is part of the problem. In the '90's it was evident that we had become too good, too high-faluting in our own minds, to manufacture anything physical: no more American TV's or other electronics. We were All About the Software. Then the software itself went overseas (to Ireland, to India) and we were All About the Hype: during the Internet bubble, you didn't need a business model, profits or even revenues, you just needed a good story, or failing that, a buzzword. Now that the hype is gone, along with the computers, cars, software developers, math grades, and everything else, we are left with the knowledge that We Are Better than Everybody, even though there is no longer any objective proof this is true. Republican (and Tea Party) Florida Senator-elect Marco Rubio: "“America is the single greatest nation on earth, a place without equal in the history of all mankind...I know about the unique exceptionalism of our country." Makes me remember the verse from which I derived the name of this column, by William Butler Yeats: "Now that my ladder's gone/I must lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."

Globalism and exceptionalism

Many of the people promoting American exceptionalism are also responsible for the flight of manufacturing and of jobs overseas: right wing politicians shout out their patriotism, while leaving unfettered the "free markets" which use less expensive (and perhaps more competent) workers abroad. This came up as an issue in my local Congressional race, where incumbent Democrat Tim Bishop faced off against Republican businessman Randy Altschuler. That race is still in play, and in court, as of this morning (November 24), with Bishop in a meager 235-vote lead. The issue of outsourcing was first raised by Altschuler's opponent in the Republican primary: "“We have known all along that Randy Altschuler outsourced thousands of American jobs to India. Today we learned that Altschuler is actually very proud that he made millions putting Americans out of work. Altschuler was so proud of his work that he facilitated his own nomination for an outsourcing award."

Medication prices

A doctor prescribed Tamiflu for one of us who was sick, and I had a moment of panic at the pharmacy when the computer popped up a message which said, "Exceeds insurance limits". I imagined I had hit some sort of prescription medication annual cap I didn't even know existed. I asked how much it would cost if I paid out of pocket and the answer was $10 per pill.

It turned out that the number of days of medication the doctor had attempted to prescribe was what exceeded the cap, and the pharmacy filled the script for a lesser amount, which was fine as we didn't use up even that amount. Back at CVS to fill a different script today, I saw another man who wasn't that lucky. A silver haired, distinguished looking guy in nice-looking leisure clothing was told he had to pay $224 for his medication. He was stunned, because he usually had to pay $134. They verified that for some obscure health insurance reason, $224 was now the appropriate payment. He muttered, "I don't have it," and walked away without his meds. I never found out whether they were for something irreplaceable, like his heart, or only for some less important organ (like his kidneys).

Finally, from the Times for November 24, about the AIDS pills which a clinical trial indicated may be used preventively with a lot of success:

In the United States, Truvada, made by Gilead sciences,costs $12,000 to $14,000 a year. In very poor countries, generic versions cost as little as 40 cents a pill.

Say what? I know a lot of people without health insurance, some of whom are almost as old as me, but I don't know anyone who could afford to spend $1000 a month for AIDS meds. Ah, but you say, you either have health insurance, or Medicare, or Medicaid, or the government pays anyway under the Ryan White act. Aha, I say, the insurers mostly don't yet pay for the prophylactic use of these meds. Anyway, if the government or a health insurer is paying, does that make it OK to charge $1,000 a month for something that costs $12 a month somewhere else? (That's assuming one pill a day x 30 days. Even if its ten pills a day, that's $120.) And that's why the fucking system is broken.

There's a lot more that needs to be said. Yes, Big Pharm needs to recover its research costs. I suspect, at these prices, it does that many times over. The Libertarians will claim that somehow, magically, it is the tiny bit of government regulation that drives up the prices, and that if government took its nose out of health care entirely, we could all buy forty cent pills. Come to think of it, that argument blames the victim very nicely: Big Pharm gouges the government and the Libertarians blame the government for causing its own gouging. Nice.

Anyway, raise your hand if you really believe that pills would cost only forty cents, if billionaires were free to do anything they wanted with no government oversight.

More on AIDS

One night in the South Bronx in 2004 or so, working on an ambulance called 19 David, I was splashed with the blood of a stabbing victim, and checked myself in to the St. Barnabas emergency room. (Without going into too much gross detail, I got blood on me on many other occasions without becoming a patient; something a little different than the norm made me fear exposure this one time.) The doctor placed me on two retroviral meds the size of horse pills, and told me I would take them for six months if the victim (who had died) tested positive for AIDS. He said, "If you take these for six months, you will hallucinate." "Will I be able to work?" I asked. He shrugged and said he knew someone who had both hallucinated and kept working.

The victim's blood came back with a clean report just a few days later, so I didn't have to stay on the meds (which made me pretty nauseous just in the short time I took them). Now, according to the Times for November 24, two other more recently developed retrovirals, taken together, seem to work prophylactically, a substitute for that AIDS vaccination they never perfected. These pills don't have the profound and dangerous side effects of those I was prescribed just a few years ago.

Its nice to feel (despite Chernobyl, "smart bombs" and Microsoft Windows) that technology works sometimes. But that blush of good cheer fades pretty quickly when you put it in perspective. Think about all the people who get infected every year who have no clue they are even at risk, and would never know to take a prophylactic dose (married or committed people who think their partners are faithful; people who don't know a partner shoots drugs, etc.) Think about the impact of the Catholic Church telling its billion adherents never to use condoms in heterosexual relations, because it might deny an AIDS-infected infant its "right" to exist. And, as mentioned above, all the people who would take the drug-- but can't afford to.

I'm so glad for the rich

Wall Street (the people who took a third or more of all our net worth just two years ago by their greedy and stupid manipulations, without losing their own personal wealth) has resumed conspicuous consumption. One of the reasons may be that Republicans have retaken the House. Per an article in the November 24 Times, a fellow named Josh Koplewicz, an analyst at Goldman, Sachs, held his annual Halloween party in a 6,000 foot space at a Manhattan club for 1,000 Wall Street guests. Lil Kim, the rapper, entertained, wearing a black cat costume. (A check of her Wikipedia entry confirmed what I remembered from sitting on ambulances with much younger partners and listening to Hot 97: she served a year in prison for perjury in 2005, for lying about a friend's involvement in a shooting. It seems particularly appropriate that the party was at the nexus of gangster and gangsta--Lil Kim being the gangsta in this equation.)

Reading many paragraphs further down in the story, you get to the real cream:

A Morgan Stanley trader recently tried to hire a dwarf for a bachelor party in Miami, asking the dwarf to meet him at the airport in a "Men in Black" style suit...The trader, who wanted to handcuff the dwarf to the bachelor, was recently fired.

Morgan Stanley to that trader: "Its people like you who make us look monstrous." Which is a variation on the punchline of a joke I first heard circa 1964 ("Its people like you who make this job disgusting").

Meanwhile, most of the people I know in New York City don't have access to a health insurance plan (or can't afford the premiums if they do.)

North Korea attacks

The North Koreans fired numerous artillery shells at a South Korean island, killing at least two people and destroying some houses.

This gets my blood boiling, because I don't believe malicious violence in this flawed world is actually deterred by tolerance. Watchers seem to think that North Korea is getting aggressive right now to build up the younger Mr. Kim as a successor to his father. It really doesn't matter what the reasoning is; unlike Al Qaeda, where the people responsible usually can't be precisely targeted, South Korea (or we) could easily take out the artillery emplacements, or do much more harm than that. The most obvious reason no-one is doing that is because the North has nukes, and may be crazy enough to use one if provoked. A less obvious reason is that we are so over-extended in Iraq (where we should never have gone) and Afghanistan, we can't have any more wars right now. In any event, the weakness of responding to murder with more, already unsuccessful sanctions, is evident. But it seems to be a major part of the fabric these decades; Reagan never punished anyone for the murder of 241 US servicemen in the Beirut barracks in 1983 (and was never criticized by his own party or the other for throwing away these lives). Off the Somalian coast, Russian and British forces capturing pirates seem to let them go again, rather than bringing them in for trial. In general, these are excellent times for the violent and crazy, not so good for the reasonable and tolerant.

Tom DeLay

Angered by his conviction of laundering money in the 2002 elections, former House Republican Majority Whip Tom DeLay said:

This is an abuse of power. Its a miscarriage of justice. I still maintain my innocence. The criminalization of politics undermines our very system.

Ha. DeLay as House Majority Whip in 1998 was one of the chief architects of his own abuse of power and miscarriage of justice, the impeachment of President Clinton for the high crime and misdemeanor known as GWD ("governing while Democratic"). Nicknamed the "Hammer", DeLay tried to ensure that every Republican voted to remove the President, and prevented a lesser vote of censure which might have sidetracked this effort. In a recent memoir, he said of Clinton, ""I openly admit that I just don't like the man, and my disgust is both personal and political."

Another entertaining sidelight: DeLay once distinguished himself from ex-speaker Gingrich (whom he dislikes) on the grounds that he himself had stopped cheating on his own wife by the time they impeached Clinton for cheating on his, while Gingrich's adultery continued through the impeachment period.

The punchline to this highly amusing story: with the Supreme Court decision last February in Citizen's United and the growth of the new types of 501(c) nonprofits which can maintain donor anonymity, DeLay could probably achieve his money-laundering goals in perfect legality today.

Global warming in Virginia

I don't remember a time of such easy ironies, great juxtapositions I can arrange with the data from every days' newspaper.

From the Times for November 26, an article about coastal cities in Virginia where the streets are starting to flood at high tide:

Politics aside, the city of Norfolk is tackling the sea-rise problem head on. In August, the Public Works Department briefed the City Council on the seriousness of the situation, and Mayor Paul D. Fraim has acknowledged that if the sea continues rising, the city might actually have to create “retreat” zones.

From an August article in a local Virginia paper, the Harrisonburg Times:

On August 26, 2010 at a town hall meeting at James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, [Republican] Governor Bob McDonnell stated, in response to a question I posed on global warming, that the science of anthropogenic climate change was debatable. When I countered that there was not significant debate on this issue, he replied, “I’m telling you, there is.”

On a classic Republican revenge crusade, the state's Republican attorney general, Ken T. Cuccinelli II, as mentioned in the same New York Times article, "is trying to prove that a prominent climate scientist engaged in fraud when he was a researcher at the University of Virginia." (This is another great example of the criminalization of politics in which Tom DeLay claims Democrats engage, but Republicans never.) Cuccinelli also petitioned EPA to reconsider its limits on greenhouse gas emissions. He issued a press release (quoted in his Wikipedia bio) which said, "We cannot allow unelected bureaucrats with political agendas to use falsified data to regulate American industry and drive our economy into the ground.”.

In the main essay this month, I quote former House Republican leader Dick Armey, testifying to Congress that God would never permit mere humans to harm the planet.

I envision McDonnell, Armey and Cuccinnelli floating away when the deluge comes, and shouting out the following narrative consistent with their apparent religious and scientific beliefs: God sent this flood, to punish us for the sins of the liberals.

Greek fire

I have always been fascinated by Greek fire, the secret flame throwing technology, the formula for which supposedly died with the last emperor of Byzantium. Roger Crowley in "1453" (2005) gives the first explanation I have ever seen of the probable ingredients: crude oil mixed with wood resin to give it adhesive properties, heated in bronze containers, pressurized by a hand pump and then emitted through a nozzle and ignited by a flame. In a sea battle in 678 AD, the Byzantine fleet surprised and destroyed an attacking Arab fleet, immolating the ships and men.

A fascinating sidelight is that the people who deployed Greek fire were extremely close to the discovery of peaceful technologies: the same approach to heating and emitting a gas could have led to innovations in transportation, agriculture, etc. which were not to be made for centuries. Killing people was obviously the most interesting problem to solve.

The flamethrowers of World War II and Vietnam were therefore essentially a medieval weapon. Of course, the time which elapsed between the invention of Greek fire and that of modern weapons is vanishingly small in human history--just 1400 years, about the same time that the Roman empire existed in Europe and then the East. This is also an illustration of the nonlinearity of history and the propensity, as sketched by George Kubler in "The Shape of Time", to stumble on the same invention at different times in different places, and to reinvent what has already been made. Greek fire was probably the first case in history of mass destruction, where a single weapon could kill many people and destroy a lot of property at once. Kurt Vonnegut, who as an Allied prisoner of war survived the firebombing of Dresden, said that war is the "incredible artificial weather that Earthlings sometimes create for other Earthlings when they don't want those other Earthlings to inhabit Earth any more."


The release of the cables and their selective printing in the Times and other media is a highly interesting ethical spectacle. I am glad material of this caliber hits the street periodically--it is healthy to understand the workings of our government and international diplomacy from an inside perspective. There were few stark revelations. the general fatuousness of tone is evident, part of a trend of American self-satisfaction and superiority going back to "The Quiet American" and before. The fact that American diplomats are now expected to gather information on their opposite numbers (including credit card and frequent flyer numbers) is disturbing. Diplomats are supposed to be the face of the country abroad; the long time use (I was going to say infestation) of embassies by the CIA after World War II already dictates that when you deal with a diplomat, you never know if you are encountering a spy. Also, it was interesting to know how many other Arab and Islamic countries would like us or Israel to end the Iranian nuclear program--but won't come out and say so.

The travails of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, accused of rape in Sweden, provide a bizarre backdrop to the story. Rather than revert to a complete conspiracy theory that he is being framed, I believe the persuasive words of one of the anonymous accusers, that Assange has strange ideas about consent. It may illustrate a proposition, that people with the courage to challenge powerful governments may often have a monstrous side themselves.

World government

Representatives of two hundred nations met in Mexico yesterday to try to agree on some small steps to slow climate change (despite Dick Armey's recommendation that we just trust in God). They will probably fail. It has become obvious to me in recent years that problems can only be solved by entities with authority to act at the highest level at which the problem occurs. British barons stopped raiding and pillaging each other's fiefs when a government of the whole island took hold to prevent it. Global warming, nuclear armament, famine, the spread of deserts, refugees and migration, negative economic interactions will never be solved by treaties, but only, if ever, by a government of the globe. I am not a cloud cuckoo land idealist, and I well understand the problems of sovereignty, civil rights and democracy represented by a government in which educated people with liberal ideals would be a vanishingly small minority. (However, they already are in the United States alone.) I am merely fatalistically saying that with technologies which affect us at the global level, and no global authority to restrain them, we are sliding towards a new dark age--presaged and apparently welcomed by people like Dick Armey and Sarah Palin.

Hope you have a great month.