April 2011

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Free speech

Just when I'm ready to conclude the Supremes have become an oligarchical tool, they deliver a stunning 8-1 opinion affirming the protection of even hateful speech: the picket signs carried by the Westboro Baptist Church at military funerals, which the Court said, “cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt.” Bravo.

Follow the money

On a darker note, this is the age of legalized bribery and money-laundering, as enthusiastically legitimized by the Supremes in the Citizen United case. Here is a first rate example: Supriya, wife of Louisiana Republican governor Bobby Jindal, forms a foundation and AT&T, awaiting signature of cable legislation by the governor, contributes $250,000.

Public employees

The Tea Party types, who will stop at nothing to eliminate government, are fostering public hatred of teachers, firefighters and cops. Ahem: we need these people. You don't plan to replace them all with volunteers, do you? Or perhaps they do: Tea Party World will be a paradise of home schooling, militias and all-volunteer firefighters.

Reprinted almost without comment

From the Times for March 3:

In a new book, Pope Benedict XVI makes a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus Christ.

How generous. In return, I am happy to say I don't hold the current Pope personally responsible for the nonstop murder of Jews and other living things by the Church during the Middle Ages.


Finishing John Wain's biography of Samuel Johnson, I was struck by the incongruity that a highly intelligent and philosophical man was so frightened of death. I blame Christianity, which should teach resignation and calm, but which instead inspired so many with a terror of hell. Johnson thought himself a sinner--if he was, he sinned in thought alone--and told friends near the end how much he feared damnation. Personally, I like to think that death, if not mere nonexistence, may be an opportunity to rush about in the wind or take a nearer look at the stars. With which I associate the following lines of Yeats:

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Raymond Allen Davis

I forgot to write anything last month about the American who shot the two Pakistani motorcyclists. What a story. Is he a contractor or a direct CIA employee? What was his mission? Did he work for the consul or the embassy as a cover? Its a consummate ethical spectacle: using diplomatic cover for spies, spying on putative allies, and the beat goes on.

As convenient as it is, I don't think we should use embassies to plant spies, any more than I think ambulances should be used for intelligence gathering or infiltration purposes. Not only is it dishonest and wrong in itself, but it undermines the actual mission of the embassy.

Rick Scott

The Florida governor is another example of a billionaire who spent his own money to get elected and is erasing the public-private distinction and creating a new baronial system. I am happy that the Republicans in his own state are getting annoyed with him. Like most billionaires, he doesn't know how to do things by consensus.


The president has now shamefully folded on his promise to close Guantanamo. It supports a perception that he is weak and does not fight for the things he believes. Guantanamo, and the military commissions that he has now re-started, will continue to be a blot on America's record as a democracy.

Charlie Sheen

...said, "I never have to put on those silly shirts for as long as this warlock exists in the terrestrial dimension.” Its remarkable what ensues when someone has no check whatever on the growth of his ego.

Peter King

Best ethical spectacle of the month so far: Republican congessman Peter King self righteously chasing the Muslim population of our country for their perceived radicalism and support of Al Qaeda, when he himself was an outspoken supporter of the IRA not so many years ago, and even of their collateral killing of civilians: "“If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the I.R.A. for it.” As a lot of the media have pointed out this week, the IRA did not only bomb military targets; it bombed Harrod's department store in London during the period King was unstinting in support.

The committee is unavoidably reminiscent of the House Unamerican Activities Committee of awful memory, singling out Americans for exposure and harassment based on ideology and suspicion.

Libya again

It is terrible to watch sympathetic young people with democratic ideals being killed while the President delays, announces half measures, and waits for the rest of the world to act. However, it is one of those situations where one's kneejerk reaction is not necessarily the prudent policy to follow. It would also be terrible to expend American lives in another boondoggle situation which is not guaranteed to lead where we want. We too easily and unrealistically think of military operations as being 'surgical", which they rarely if ever are. If you conceive Libya as another possible swamp for us to get bogged down in, like Iraq and Afghanistan, for years on end, not many of us would make that choice. Finally, we could inadvertently create in Libya, as we did in Iraq, an active incubator and battlefield for Al Qaeda, where none existed before.

Later--its still a bitter pill, watching Khadafy steamroller the rebellion, while the West talks endlessly and inconclusively about how to help. The rebels are being killed in real time, and we are reacting outside of time--much as we are reacting to our own urgent problems as well.

Later--We went in, when it was almost too late. I am relieved we did, as the memory of the Rwandan genocide, which we stood by and watched, is bitter. Still, the inevitable back-biting, from left as well as right, has begun: Can we sustain a third war? What is the exit strategy? There seem to be three models. The "Desert Storm" model is a disturbing one: leave a diminished dictator in place to kill his people and do further mischief. "Iraqi Freedom" is no better: occupy the country semi-permanently, creating a target for Al Qaeda and therefore a battlefield where none existed before. I like best the "Granada" or "Panama" model: get in, depose the dictator, get out, and let the opposition form a government and carry on. This risks the development of a new Qaeda-harboring, Israel-hating nation, but is most consistent with both the self-determination of Libyans and with a meld of idealism and pragmatism on our part, conserving American lives and best managing our resources.

The old war powers debate is happening again. I remember the Congress passing a 1973 act which was supposed to ensure that a president would always ask Congress' permission. Virtually no-one has since Truman. Some are disappointed in Obama because they expected him to be a bit more careful; and constitutional than his predecessors.

I was a big supporter of the original concept, after watching how a never-declared Vietnam war spread to Laos and Cambodia. I am a little more uncertain today, when we see a split Congress with a Republican House majority determined to kneecap a Democratic president. If the legislative and executive branches knew how to work together better, I would still feel stronger about the executive seeking permission. But I don't trust Republicans to allow any decent or necessary thing to happen, if a Democrat would receive credit for it.

The dump

A few years ago, my wife and I had a disastrous dinner with some people we thought could be friends--the kind where you find out that though there are superficial things in common, you don't really have any overlapping sympathies. One of the errors I made that night--yes, I am socially awkward--was to tell them how much I enjoyed scavenging for books at the Home Exchange area in the Easthampton town dump. This is a favored Saturday activity, and I have acquired a whole library. Going to the dump to look for books is sometimes a magical experience; I frequently find things I have been looking for, a long time, in vain. For example, I have found venerable out of print old classics on freedom of speech I had sought as sources for a book I am writing; I have found histories of Mary Queen of Scots and of Thomas Jefferson, novels of John Varley which are out of print and which I couldn't find on a book swap site I belong to; poetry of Coleridge, Tennyson, and others; French novels. And books to give away to friends, most recently a set of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to a friend who is studying to be a funeral director. Endless copies of books I already have--"One Hundred Years of Solitude"--to pass on to people who have never read it. Entire libraries of old plays. In the past five years, I have read hundreds of books I got at the dump, and I have hundreds more waiting. Though I rarely pick up anything there that is not a book, I long for a pick up truck that would allow me to bring home some of the larger items I have seen: foosball tables, treadmills. The only thing about which I daydream which I have never seen: a kayak, though I have two and don't need another one. There is no end of the cross country skiis people bought and never used during the fad thirty years ago, but I have four pairs already. I wanted more book-cases for the books I found there, but had no way to carry them home.

After that embarassing dinner, my wife said to me mildly: "Perhaps not so much about the dump next time." Now, I know the world is divided into two types of people: those who get the dump, and will happily come there with me, and those who will never understand.

I read in the local paper a few minutes ago, the town is closing the Home Exchange area, after so many years. It was once open every day; when I started visiting, Friday to Monday only; this year, Saturdays alone. There is a whole community which hovers there all day: old Caucasian men who have made it a lifestyle, and young Mexican people who doubtless make part of their living from the things they find there, in one of the wealthiest towns in America. It can be a little surprising or disturbing, sometimes, when you are walking up with a coffeepot or a lamp, and get swarmed by people bfore you can even put it down. ("Does it work?") I can't help seeing two main subtexts. One is that this is just one more pleasure, even if a trivial one, of which we have been robbed by the people who gambled all of our money on mortgage backed securities and derivatives. The town says it can no longer pay people to supervise, to drive the frontloader to scoop up the un-selected stuff. For the people partly staying alive on the things they find there and sell, its much more serious than for me. And that's the second subtext: the town no longer wants to run an area for the lower middle class, the poor, the scavengers, and the illegals. Rich people were throwing away books, trays and tchotchkes, but the less advantaged were picking them up. The town employee interviewed in the newspaper article mentioned the scavengers, the people who hung out there all day (which I never did, by the way. Just to clarify). Since the gamblers lost all our money (without, in so many cases like mine, our even knowing they were gambling it), class warfare has become evident, been exposed in this country, and this is just another sad example of that.

The Japanese earthquake

I had two dueling insights from the early coverage of the catastrophe in Japan. The first was that Japan's strict building code, which mandated earthquake-resistant apartment and office buildings, demonstrates the role of big government in saving lives, as it is difficult or impossible to imagine free markets making this requirement universal. In an unregulated free market economy, it seems much more likely that the super-rich alone would own earthquake-resistant houses, and the apartments of the poor would collapse like card-houses. On the other hand, the reported melt-down of the nuclear reactor raises the question why anybody would ever build one in a zone which could be affected by an earthquake or tsunami. I wonder, though, if the siting of nuclear reactors might not have been an example of the triumph of free markets over government?

Nuclear meltdowns

This is a damn small planet--the mileage on my inherited 1997 Lincoln Town Car is three times the Earth's circumference. An earthquake in Japan sends a wave to California, and the radiation venting from those reactors in northern Japan will also go overywhere on earth. Some number of people may have died in the United States as a result of Chernobyl--its impossible to know the exact numbers because these were cases of people diagnosed with cancers they wouldn't have had otherwise, but without any way to know for sure. All we know for sure is that radiation in the upper atmosphere goes everywhere on earth.

Meanwhile, idiots like Glenn Beck and Dick Armey continue to claim we can be perfectly irresponsible and God will never let anything bad happen. I never signed any contract saying that a Japanese company, making a nuclear plant siting decision, had the right to give me thyroid cancer. Under any circumstances. The tininess of the planet demands global care and responsibility.

Later--The heroism of the Japanese workers undertaking what they must know to be a suicide mission, is stunning. They are trying to save their nation, their neighbors and the world, and should be remembered and honored. Just wondering if any of the billionaire owners of the company are with them or are in fact within hundreds of miles of the plant?

Later--The Japanese reactors, which are still critical, have all but dropped off the front page of the Times and are no longer the subject of lead coverage on CNN and MSNBC, having been supplanted by the Libyan incursion. It has something to do with the nature of news and short attention public spans: "The Japanese got a little more irradiated today" is not a lede.

Indian Point is thirty five miles from New York City; the State Department is telling Americans in Japan not to get within fity miles of the reactors. My brain shuts down trying to work that math.

Hawaiian homeless

Homeless people are being chased out of a site they long used by the waterfront in Honolulu, and a local advocate has pointed out that for many years, Hawaii has simply chased them from place to place, rather than solving the underlying problem. Its warm in Hawaii; in bitter New York, where at least a few deaths of hypothermia are reported each winter (and I suspect more go unreported), we have done that a long time. I still vividly remember the tear-down of the Tompkins Square park encampment, where tents full of clothes, toys and other possessions were bulldozed flat. Homeless, like slaves at the time of the Dred Scott decision, apparently haven't any rights society is bound to respect.

The death of libertarianism

Libertarianism is an appealing meme in a ballooning or bubbling economy, when it appears that we will all do better and better. In a deflated post-bubble world, where it becomes hard to breathe because the wealthy have reserved the oxygen, its harder to remember why you don't need a government to protect you, or why, from a moral standpoint, you are required to give more and more of what you have--your money, your security--to the rich. Some things that would be happening right now in libertarian world: the death toll from the earthquake would have been higher, because builders would have built cheap high rises in Japan; also, without some kind of government supervision of supplies such as iodine pills, we would see someone corner the market, and only the billionaires would have them, or we would have access at $100 a pill or more. The bus crash this week was a feature of too little government intervention; the discount lines are almost completely unregulated, so a driver who had served prison time for manslaughter, and once had his license suspended, was at the wheel, driving ten and twelve hour tours. Anyone who tells you that a "truly" free market, an "invisible hand", would never let this happen, also believes in Santa Claus and fairies at the bottom of the garden. When you're hungry and you can't take care of yourself or maintain the roof over your head, its not really very consoling to tell yourself, "Thank God I am free of government"--which after all is actually how we all act together to achieve a common good. Instead of leaving it up to the billionaires to decide.

Without comment

From the New York Times for March 22:

What if you had a tsunami warning in the Atlantic ocean and had to evacuate the Eastern Seaboard? You're talking about tens of millions of people. Where are you going to put those people? How are you going to get them there? Good luck with that....
That's Brian Wolshon, director of the Gulf Coast Center for Evacuation and Transportation Resiliency.

Massapequa police shooting

When I volunteered for the Red Cross, they never wanted you to deploy yourself to an emergency. On ambulances, "flagging" yourself to a job is disfavored.

In Massapequa, two cops, one retired and one from the transit police, who deployed themselves to a scene where a deranged man was brandishing a knife, caused the death of a respected Nassau county officer. Neither knew him, which the other cops on scene did. One shouted "gun!" and the other shot him as he approached the scene. It was a perfect fucknasium, and caused directly by the self-deployment.

A new middle ages

General Electric managed to pay no taxes last year. The percentage of all taxes paid by corporations is fast declining. Part of the decline of the middle class in America may be driven by retrograde taxation, falling most heavily upon those who can least afford it. The wealthy skate ostensibly because they create jobs for us, but in reality because they have the money and power to protect themselves by bending the system out of shape.

Tie this in to the attack on unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere. (The Koch brothers tend to be just one of the common links among all of the offensives against the middle class.) I was just re-reading parts of Barbara Tuchman's poignantly titled "A Distant Mirror", and found the following in her account of the 14th century attack on the working class (which ensured it could never become comfortable and stable enough to form a middle class): "As the masters became richer, the workers sank to the level of day labor, with little prospect of advancement. Membership in the guilds was shut off to the oridnary journeyman and reserved under complicated requirements and fees for sons and relatives of the master class....Although forbidden to strike and in some towns, to assemble, workers formed associations of their own to press for higher wages." Le plus ca change....If you view the Koches and other billionaires (up to and including the relatively enlightened Mayor Bloomberg) as medieval barons, it all falls into place.

Bob Herbert

I am sad he left the Times. He was the last energetic, compassionate liberal writing there. Paul Krugman is cerebral, Herbert was big-hearted and angry. The Times needed him, apparently more than he needed the Times.

A thought about unions

Am I missing something here, or shouldn't libertarians, and by extension the Tea Party, be pro-union? I understand opposition if unions are seen as an extension of government in derogation of business. But if we reduce unions to the basic pre-government concept of workers organizing to advance their own interests, isn't that a fundamental liberty tied right into the First Amendment right peaceably to assemble and petition for redress of grievances? The attack on unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire and elsewhere looks like something quite different, an aggression against the middle class by the billionaire class and a gross intrusion on liberty.

An Optimum commercial

A confusing Optimum commercial that is running now--the kind you imagine was invented by stoned adfolk who think they are really cool--contains the line, "Global warming? I don't think so!" A few years back, this could never have happened; companies were very careful to remain apolitical, for fear of losing sales. Now that billionaires increasingly take quite radical positions without fear for the companies they control, and the Supreme Court has blessed every kind of spending to promote political messages in the "Citizens United" case, we will see more of this kind of thing. The line between public and private, once sharp, is being erased, and the same people who own banks and sell us products are attempting to consolidate power as the masters of the political sphere as well.