March 2011

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

1989 all over again

Its 1989 in the Middle East. I still don't know where its going to lead. I only know what's happening is democratic, and relatively secular, and very modern, like 1989 was. That does not mean that: it will succeed, rather than being beaten down by the government, like the recent democracy movement in Iran; or that it won't be hijacked by the Islamists; or that a triumphant democratic movement will want to continue its treaties with Israel, or friendships with the United States.

Bloomberg billionaire

Mayor Bloomberg has passed for a relatively moderate Republican, with some liberal beliefs, such as gun control; but his billionaire credentials are becoming evident as he deals with the financial crisis. There is certainly some fraud and some fat in New York City pensions; the featherbedding which allows people to inflate their base salary via overtime in their final year needs to go. But he also announced that nobody will draw a retirement check until they are sixty five. Today, cops, firefighters and EMT's get to begin pulling their pensions after twenty years on the job; since some start when they are eighteen or twenty, they get to retire quite young--or in most cases, start a second career with a significant cushion from their last one. Now, these are unqiuely difficult and dangerous jobs. As an EMT for the city for four years, I was punched, spat on and kicked by patients, and splashed with their blood; I spent a week once taking really powerful AIDS medication and feeling nauseous while waiting for blood test results on a deceased stabbing victim. Those people work for their money in a way Bloomberg never has. Wall Street types can make jokes about "blood in the water" all they like, but its metaphorical blood, and they are very far from the real blood, dirt and danger our uniformed people face every day.

Instead of making the working class pay for Wall Street's derivatives gambles, we should of course be making the billionaires pony up. A modest increase in their taxes, and we could fund a lot of stuff that's going by the boards right now. But we live in a crazy no tax world, and that means that the people at the bottom will suffer, and in some cases die, so the wealthiest are not interrupted in the hobbies they so much enjoy. Like being the mayor of New York.


If Israel loses all its cautious, grudging allies in the region, the Israelis will have an epiphany when its too late: how they squandered fifty years of opportunity to make peace. I had a vision which I hope never comes to pass: everyone in Egypt joining together to walk into Gaza, and everyone in Gaza walking with them into Israel. Thoreau said that there is a tide within every man which "could float the British empire like a chip", and right now that tide is about to overcome Mubarak. Once it washes in Israel's direction, there will be little anyone can do.

Jobless recovery

If you run the phrase "jobless recovery" through the neurolinguistic translator, what it really means is: the billionaires have found ways to make megabucks without creating jobs. "Trickle down" doesn't exist. A rising tide does not lift all boats.

Squares: a prayer

Let Tahrir Square not be Tienamen Square.

Later: A military takeover, suspension of the Constitution....and pure trust by the protestors that the military will do the right thing and hold elections...See how this goes.


I saw Glenn Beck's remarkable turn with the chainsaw and rabbit, and thought: he presents as someone who is having a nervous breakdown. Jittery speech, look of desperation in his eyes. It may be part of his fascination, like Howard Beale in "Network" with whom he identifies: you can't look away because he may fly to pieces at any moment.


Two more of the hospitals I used to bring people to on my ambulance are gone (North General in Harlem) or in trouble (Long Island College in Brooklyn Heights). In three years since I retired, that's seven or eight New York City hospitals closed or in danger. Maybe there were too many to begin with, but the beat will go on, as the remaining ones can't do any better if they are forced to treat the uninsured without compensation, especially trauma victims. Its an ethical spectacle in itself that in many cases the same Tea Party types want unrestricted guns and don't want anyone to be forced to have health insurance which would actually compensate the hospitals for their required treatment of gun wounds. As I have said here many times, the only solution is to go one way or another: true universal health coverage (probably single payer) or allow the hospitals to dump the uninsured out on the sidewalk to die. Which world would you prefer?


I love Wikipedia. It has 3.5 million articles in the English version, so you can pretty much create a link knowing in advance an article will exist on any topic. Here's one: Carthage Must Be Destroyed. Its the story of the Roman senator who ended every speech, no matter what the topic, with that statement. Eventually the Senate, tired of listening to him, sent an army off to destroy Carthage. I often feel as lonely, and hopeful, as that guy.


We would all benefit from a study of the Italian prime minister and his sex scandals with teenage prostitutes, as he exemplifies government by billionaire, with its devil-may-care "I am the law" aspect and its erasure of the public/private distinction. He is the farcical version of Michael Bloomberg. Which leads me to rephrase Marx: All historical events repeat endlessly, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, the third as ultra-farce, the fourth as ultra-ultra-farce...See also Ecclesiastes, see also Gibbon on "the misfortunes, crimes and follies" of mankind.


I never commented on Colbert and Stewart's Washington rally last fall. It was an entertainment stunt, badly thought out and executed. Its a sad day when people won't get into the streets to advance their own interests, but come out obediently when a television personality tells them to.

The pension and health care ax

The aging of the population has been a constant crisis, an oncoming car wreck that was foreseeable years before the real estate bubble. With increasing longevity and declining fertility (or, more accurately, people choosing to have fewer children in Western societies), it was inevitable we would see a day when there were too few young people working and too many older folk drawing benefits. I have said for years that social security is essentially a Ponzi scheme, where people are paid from the fresh money coming in to the system.

However, it is heartbreaking to read about one bankrupt state after another targeting the pensions and health benefits of their retirees. There is a strong element of reliance and the social contract which is being disregarded here: people who worked twenty years or more, often in dangerous or unpleasant or deadly dull jobs, on the understanding they would receive certain benefits upon retirement. Lets not forget that we are all being robbed now, as I also keep saying, because Wall Street people gambled our money--many of whom did not gamble their own and have remained rich.

New York judges

New York is putting some rules in place to prevent judges from hearing cases involving lawyers who contributed to their campaigns. This is a great thing as far as it goes. It flies in the face of the direction the Supremes are taking us with their Citizens United decision, which encourages the flow of highly anonymous money into campaigns. Any smart lawyer will be able to work around any New York state regulation by putting a couple of cut-outs in between himself and the judge, eg, donating to "Citizens for Better Judges" which then buys attack ads against the judge's opponent. More significantly, judges should be appointed, not elected. Recent electoral punishment of judges who ruled in favor of gay marriage gives us one reason why. In general, however, elected judges too often tend to be hacks, rewarded for doing favors at party headquarters and without other qualifications for the job.

Middle East redux

There is actual fighting in Libya, with protestors taking over Benghazi and Qaddafi responding with helicopters and bombers. Pilots, generals and diplomats are also defecting, calling for him to resign.

What a wild time this is. It makes me think that, pace Asimov and the "Foundation" series, there will never be a science or math of prediction of human history, which is too desperately random. Why now, not twenty or forty years ago? An unhappy vendor set fire to himself in Tunisia and a quarter of the world arose with a roar.

These are clearly democratic movements, with their hearts in the right place, but are all to vulnerable to being hijacked by the most violent and certain, as the Russian revolution was in 1918. The most violent and certain today are the Islamists, presently hanging back with surprise but certainly thinking feverishly about how to turn the wave to their advantage. Iran is an example of a country which had a democratic surge to overthrow a Shah and, after years as a quasi-democracy, has settled down as a violent and disruptive autarchy.

The Israeli experiment just took a decided turn towards danger. Israel is very well prepared for violence of tanks and missiles by its adversaries, but (like any other nation) basically completely unequipped for mass nonviolence. If several hundred thousand Egyptians decided to walk into Gaza, to join several hundred thousand Palestinians walking to Israel, the consequences would be unbearable: the Israelis would be forced to decide whether to let it happen, or to shoot dead some thousands of unarmed people.

Class warfare in America

Meanwhile, on the home front, politics is settling down to be more obviously a matter of all out war between the billionaire class aned the rest of us. In Wisconsin, a governor, elected with Koch Brothers money, is attempting to break the unions. Conservative columnist David Brooks in the Times acknowledges (while defending the union-breaking effort in general) that the governor is trying to close the budget deficit entirely by taking money from the other side. In general, all Tea Party and libertarian arguments which leave the billionaires untouched (no tax increases for them) while cutting benefits to the middle class and the poor, are doing the same. Meanwhile, justices Scalia and Thomas, the judicial strategists of the class war, travel surprisingly openly to Koch events. As always in human history, greed for money and power is leading us in dangerous directions. I heard it said once that anyone, including the compassionate and just, can become a millionaire, but that in order to be a billionaire, being greedy and cruel is a requirement. I don't know how much longer we can go on before the mass of Americans wake up to the fact that their money has been taken, their homes stolen, hope extinguished and their voices made meaningless by cruelty and greed.

Reprinted almost without comment

From the February 25 New York Times:

....and there are not enough troops to win decisively in the Pech Valley in any case.

Since General Shinsecki was fired for saying we needed more troops to win in Iraq, the question of how many is enough has been hanging out there. No-one has definitively answered that we would need half a million people under arms, or a million, to win these wars; the one constant has been that we never have enough.


Just was reminded by something I was reading that "caritas" can be translated "charity" or "love". That got me thinking that it makes no sense to me that anyone could truly love another, without feeling compassion for others outside the love relationship. Love is a training ground for compassion, and compassion a prerequisite of love. Compassion must inevitably spill over from a marriage or family relationship into at least an occasional desire to do good for others. As to those (mainly but not exclusively Republican) who profess to love, but to feel no compassion (there is a conservative trope that compassion is dangerous, unmanly really), I wonder whether the love they feel is really something else often called by the same name: mere pride of ownership, which would manifest itself to the world as acquisitiveness, certainly never as charity.

Al Qaeda irrelevant?

It is a fascinating spectacle to watch middle eastern governments falling in a matter of weeks before self confident, nonviolent democratic protest movements after Al Qaeda failed across twenty years to bring them down with guns and bombs. We are at a cross-roads now. Al Qaeda will either successfully hijack some of these movements, as the Bolsheviks did that of Russia in 1917; or the organization will fade away over time, as the line troops and cannon fodder it needs join democratic movements instead. Either way, bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri have certainly been having a "what just happened?" moment.

More on class warfare

I see that we have stopped dancing around the issue, as we had the past few decades, and now apparently are overtly engaged in class war. The billionaire Koch brothers are funding the effort. Pace to all the libertarian cover fire, the $64,000 question is: what exactly is our moral obligation to lie down for the billionaires, as opposed to fighting to protect our middle class status and lifestyle? I never invaded the Koch's world and tried to take anything away from them; why are they invading mine?

Bloomberg again

The Times for February 28 reports on another piece of city software in trouble--a housing agency program meant to track "thousands of New yorkers who hold federal housing vouchers". Thousands? That's a really small database. I could write that one myself, almost, and I'm not technical. That it cost $36 million and doesn't work properly underlines the fact that the entire Bloomberg administration, from the mayor on down, seems to have checked out, and nobody is minding the store. He should never have run for a third term.