Friday, September 30, 2005

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Pilot fish, blood in the water, and economic reform

Having once, in a distant and hard to remember past, been an economics student, I still find myself drawn, every day, almost against my will, to various online financial pages, where invariably, as today, I encounter claptrap about "economic reform."

Why is it that the rulers of the world, presumably under the guidance of their economists, who function much as the paid clerics of Saudi Arabia, universally use the word "reform" to mean programs that make the middle class poor, the poor poorer, all but the very few insecure in their livelihoods, uncertain of their retirement, and fearful for the prospects of their children, even as the already astonishingly rich get unimaginably richer yet?

These water-carriers for an increasingly nasty and brutal social order, which would certainly include a majority of economists since Keynsianism disappeared from the earth, have by and large returned to a 19th century social Darwinism, which, then as now, cloaked unapologetic ideological propaganda on behalf of the rich and powerful in a peculiar imitation of science, nowadays reinforced with a fishwrap of impenetrable mathematics, as if we will thereby take these economists at their word and no one will notice the blood spurting from under the wheels of globalism's juggernaut. Or if we notice, perhaps the mathematics makes it look enough like physics that we will take the operation of the juggernaut to have the inevitability of a law of nature.

If we can be convinced by the pilot fish that a vicious economy, like a great white shark, is kinda the way it's spozed to be, constrained and directed by inevitiable laws of nature, the blood in the water may still turn our stomachs, but we will be resigned to not trying to do anything about it.

But in fact, just about every nation of the world that has achieved prosperity and a decent life for its people has done so precisely by meddling with these imaginary economic laws of nature. Every place on earth that is now, or ever has been, a decent and civilized place for people to live, has gotten to that condition by interfering, sometimes quite markedly, in the operation of the free market.

The Thatcher/Reagan/Bush I/Bush II counter-reformation against human civilization has set itself the task of rolling back mankind's lot to the mid 19th century, at the very least, and has succeeded to a degree no one could have imagined before the conspiracy was joined. Never mind that the brutality of their chosen golden age, a world of workhouses and imprisonment for debt and the billowing smokestacks of Blake's dark Satanic mill, produced Marx and unrest and revolution and, eventually, the most terrible wars the world has ever known, and all-in-all a sea of endless trouble.

But we still have empty suits blithering about economic reform as if it were a _good_ thing. Seemingly the people who actually advocate economic reform think that they have tarted up rightwing ideology enough that we will really mistake it for science, and will believe that such reform, if it is unpleasant for some, is somehow a setting-free of more or less inevitable natural processes, a restoring of an ecological balance, like re-introducing wolves into Yellowstone. Hard on the sheep, but, hey.

What silly crap. Who would believe that impoverishing the middle class is a good thing, whether you call it "reform" and pretend that God, or Science, has spoken, thy will be done, or you simply and correctly call it a great organized conspiracy of the rich and powerful to steal everything there is and make themselves the lords of the earth forever.

But then who would have believed that George Bush would still be talking about tax breaks for the idle heirs of people who die worth billions, and that his congress would at the same time be trying to find turnips to squeeze blood out of to pay for George's War and FEMA's incompetence?

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

So who will go to jail in the latest torture scandal?

Update on the 82nd airborne prisoner abuse. Quotes are from the New York Times:

The Army captain who tried in vain to go up through the chain of command with revelations of torture at an 82nd Airborne base in Iraq, and who then talked to several senators and Human Rights Watch, is now being threatened with prosecution. The captain, Ian Fishback, met with lack of interest at best, and hostility at worst, in his attempts to have the torture problem investigated and corrected. That is, until Human Rights Watch released its report.

Then the investigators leapt into action. Captain Fishback was suddenly ordered to see the investigators and underwent six hours of questioning.
"They're asking the same questions over and over again," [Fishback] said. "They want the names of the sergeants, and they keep asking about my relationship with Human Rights Watch."

Captain Fishback said he has refused to disclose the names of the two sergeants - one who has left the Army and another who has been reassigned - because he promised not to disclose their identities if they came forward. But he said his command told him Tuesday that he could face criminal prosecution if disobeyed its "lawful order" to disclose.
Fishback said the the investigators, from the Criminal Investigation Command and the 18th Airborne Corps inspector general, had expressed little interest in the names of the soldiers who committed the abuses, but wanted only the names of the other whistleblowers. This is certainly not encouraging. You could almost think an effort at intimidation and a coverup is going on.

Captain Fishback said he had no regrets about coming forward, adding, "It's the right thing to do." Let us hope that he does not end up in jail for it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Faith and social pathology

The current issue of the Journal of Religion and Society has an interesting article which, if social science were written in English, would bear the title "Does religion make you stupid?" The actual title is "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies." It's by Gregory S. Paul, and if he were a sociologist you couldn't fault him for choosing the title he did; an academic needs to make a living. But I think he is the Gregory S Paul who writes popular science books on dinosaurs, in which case the title is inexplicable.

A majority of Americans, and all of our candidates for political office, believe implicitly in the words of Ben Franklin, that “religion will be a powerful regulator of our actions, give us peace and tranquility within our minds, and render us benevolent, useful and beneficial to others.”

I got this quote from Paul's article, and the gist of Paul's thesis is that the facts don't bear out Ben Franklin's claim.

America is the most religious country in the developed world, by far. We also have more social pathologies, by far, than any developed country. Paul has collected the charts and graphs to prove it.

Japan, France, and the Scandinavian countries are the most secular nations of the world. The United States, by various measures, displays levels of religiosity otherwise found only in third world countries. Americans, unlike people in every other developed country, tend to doubt or reject evolution. This is untrue in the Western democracies, and in Japan. Japan has the highest levels of acceptance of evolution.

The United States is the only developed country with a third-world murder rate. American adolescents get infected with syphilis and gonorrhea at third world rates. Adolescent abortion rates go hand in hand with disbelief in evolution, and with "increasing belief and worship of a creator." Early adolescent pregnancy and birth in America is "two to dozens" of times higher than in secular democracies. Teen-age abortion rates in the United States are more than twice that of atheistic Denmark, where only slightly over 10% of the public claims to believe in God.

Religiosity correlates with positively with juvenile and young-adult mortality, i.e., our young people die or get killed more often than in secular countries.

We are not only the most religious country in the first world, we are also the richest, leading Paul to comment that "The U.S. is therefore the least efficient western nation in terms of converting wealth into cultural and physical health."

This is interesting. What Paul means by "religion" is fundamentalist Christianity, as anyone can see by the proxies he uses: strong belief in a creator god, disbelief in evolution, frequent religious service attendance, and scriptural literalism. The same markers would probably work for most kinds of fundamentalism, actually. World-wide.

Now he does not come right out and say religion causes stupidity. He says, rather, we need more research on possible cause and effect linkages. I don't disagree with that.

Obviously, though, an alternative hypothesis for the same data would be that inequality and racial injustice make you stupid. Personally, I think that may be more of a cause of the social disfunctions Paul mentions than fundamentalist religion, and that these disfunctions are good indicators of unhappiness, which would then be the cause impelling our people to grasp at religious straws to palliate an otherwise wretched life. This sounds Marxist, I realize. But when Marx spoke of religion as an opiate, he must have been thinking of the Anglicans around him in the reading room of the British Museum. The religion of Jerry Falwell is more like crack cocaine.

To get back to the question of what causes what, it's certainly possible for inequality and racial injustice to be part of a nasty feedback loop with fundamentalist religion. I'd guess that explicit research about that could get you denied tenure in many public university sociology departments, or endanger the grant-attractiveness of departments where the researcher already has tenure. I expect not to see a definitive answer.

Monday, September 26, 2005

War as pornography

As many in the blogosphere no doubt know, there seems to be a porn site which has become a repository for GI trophy pictures of Iraqi dead. The rules of the porn site as I understand it are that access to the pornography requires either money or the donation of a picture, which I guess is the reason for the pictures of the dead Iraqis. There are lots of photos of the dead, found, as of today at least--I suspect it will soon disappear--at

A more appropriate url cannot be imagined.

They are pretty gruesome, these pictures. The premise of the site is even more gruesome.

I resisted the temptation to put some of these photos up on my blog. But as disgusting as the site is, I think it would be a good idea for Americans to look at them. Modern weapons of war do terrible things to their victims. We unleashed this mayhem.

The trouble is, I fear Americans are now so desensitized to gory movie violence, that viewing this may not be sufficient to awaken in the viewer a civilized response of repugnance, much less a morally necessary and desperately evaded response of contrition.

Maybe in some it would. Perhaps the bizarre and kinda American location of the pics as tokens of admission on a porn site would shock supporters of the war more than the pictures themselves. Maybe. I don't know.

The dismemberments and mutilations shown in the photos actually didn't surprise or horrify me. What horrifies me is that these images represent what are, or were, real people, not so long ago, probably loved and needed by other people, who are now bereft. When someone has had his head blown off, the problem is not how ugly it looks, the problem is that his life has been cut short and other people, who cared about the person killed, have had their lives shattered.

But the ugliness of the pictures could perhaps do some good if viewed in Republican households.

I am hoping the site stays up, and that people start looking at it. Not you, good readers, who are almost guaranteed not to be the people who need to see it.

But the sanitized war, where (to give an example many of you may remember) the shooting of a wounded prisoner of war was filmed by a tv cameraman, but not actually shown on tv for fear of offending, has been sanitized long enough.

Hide the coffins. Hide the bodies. This has been how Bush and company have hoped to evade the revulsion that attended the death and destruction shown on tv every day during the Vietnam War. Keep this war secret. The real war, as it really is.

This porn site is kind of like leakage around a poorly constructed levee. I suspect someone official will try to patch up the leak pdq, or the war may be in trouble.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Torture and the whited wall

There seems to be a meme going around, which is: go back to the 23rd post on your blog and find the 5th sentence, and post it here.

Well. That's easy. The 5th sentence of my 23rd post was "We're not like that."

To explain these words, I have to take you back to the fourth sentence, which was about cultural differences between us and others. "Ifn you go someplace else (nuther culture, we say, approvingly, widening ourselves) and eventually it dawns on you that these other people (Paraguayans,in my case of nuther culture) don't personally give a shit whether I think this way or live that way, but watch out they say, helpfully, don't let the government think you're a commie or they'll grab you and push you out of an airplane." End of sentence the fourth.

I was talking about how we, the Americans, are a little different from a lot of other people, not in that we are cruel, because other peoples are cruel as well, but in that we have a streak of fanaticism in our cruelty that was perhaps lacking in cases like the militares of the Stroessner regime in Paraguay, who would take dissidents up in a DC-3 with the cargo door open and push them out over the Chaco, but not with any personal hatred, or so I am led to believe by some accounts I have read. You may take any part of the foregoing with a grain of salt, if you wish. Or not.

We see in the instance of the most recent revelations of American cruelties in Iraq that our crimes against humanity are different from the indifferent enforcers working for former Paraguayan President Stroessner, and spring from equal parts of fear and fanaticism.

The 82nd Airborne is, or considers itself to be, an elite Army unit. Three soldiers of the 82nd have recently gone public with elaborate and, in my view, convincing testimony of systematic torture of Iraqi prisoners. Their complete statements were published by Human Rights Watch, and picked up by Time and the New York Times. I have just read all 3 accounts.

The reason their stories are getting noticed may be that they are members of a highly trained regular army unit, and their chain of command was clearly well aware of what was going on. The "bad apple" AKA the "badly trained rogue reservist" excuse goes by the board here.

Compared with known instances in which our soldiers have tortured or beaten prisoners to death in Iraq and Afghanistan, their revelations are relatively mild stuff.

A little torture terminology here: A prisoner was called a PUC, meaning Person Under Control. To beat a prisoner was to "fuck a PUC." To "smoke a PUC" was to exhaust a prisoner through physical labor or forcing him into painful physical positions to the point where he passed out.

And the third-grade Manicheanism peddled by our highest public officials, whereby enemy partisans are called "the bad guys" was almost standard issue in the mouths of these soldiers. They seemed to share with a lot of Americans a belief that our enemies are evil. And, quite understandably, more so than for our civilian Republican population, they were consumed with fear.

So fear and fanaticism were two of the ingredients of the torture they reported. But there was a third. They were told by their superiors that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to these prisoners. That's why PUC replaced POW. A vague lip service to "humane" treatment became the only standard, and that standard became an explicit joke. Humane treatment meant that anything goes if you don't kill them.

The company cook could come in and work out the stress of his day by beating a prisoner, in an instance recounted, by breaking the prisoner's leg with a metal baseball bat.

Where did the explicitly vague "well, we can't really tell you, exactly, what the rules are" rules come down from? Well, from the office of the White House consigliere, now the Attorney General, and from the office of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.

Now, in the minds of our people, so strongly predisposed towards good vs evil fanaticism, and who find themselves in fearful circumstances, how will these guidelines be construed? Well, we see in the soldiers' testimony exactly how.

Thud. "Hey, take it easy man. You can fuck him, or you can smoke him, but be sure you don't kill him."

I am guessing that the 23:5 meme refers back to Acts 23:5, where Paul says--sardonically I have always assumed--after having been reproached for calling the High Priest a whited wall, "I realized not, brethren, that he was the high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people."

There is an interesting recursive complexity to Paul's words viewed in the context of the present meme, given the popularity of Paul's own Manichean fanaticism with the followers of the ruler of our people, which makes my head hurt when I think about it.

Think Progress reports that Bill Frist is involved in the coverup of the fuckapuc torture scandal. He, along with Sen. McCain, was one of the two senators contacted by one of the soldiers who reported it, an Army captain. McCain's response was to file a resolution to make the military rules of conduct towards prisoners clear. Born-again Christian Frist's response was to torpedo McCain's bill.
On July 27, the same month the Captain came forward, Sen. Frist single-handedly derailed a bipartisan effort — led by Sen. McCain — to clarify rules for the treatment of enemy prisoners at U.S. prison camps. In what news reports at the time described as an “unusual move,” Frist “simply pulled the bill from consideration” before it could be debated.

update II:
According to Scott Horton, the Army investigated itself about torture allegations. A Major General Fay was in charge. He is a Republican Insurance executive and reserve officer, who was called up for the purposes of the investigation/whitewash. Fay's investigative technique was this:
Fay repeatedly warned soldiers that if they were involved in incidents, they would be put up on charges. And if they had seen things and not reported them, they would be up on charges. Then he asked if the soldiers had anything to report.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Mr. Bush, meet global warming: II

The belief that science can be replaced with spin is a religious belief that is more catastrophic in its consequences than one that the world is 6000 years old. Although the latter belief, and similar ones derived from literal faith in Christian scripture, is held onto tightly, with eyes tight shut, by the Republican base, the Republicans in charge, who imagine themselves masters of the world, are no doubt as cynical about such articles of ordinary Republican rank-and-file peon faith as they are about science.

In essence, the religion of the would-be masters of the universe is political power, and the intensity of their own faith is such that they have dispensed with "reality" as being, well, outmoded. They are kind of like the Maoists of years past, who believed that power grows from the barrel of a gun, and who, as a corollary, believed that cultural revolutions and great leaps forward could simply be willed, and made to happen, with brute political force. Republicans have a similar view, it seems, about physical reality.

Physical reality, obviously, has other plans.

Global warming can't be spun away. This hasn't really sunk in for Karl Rove and the neocons, I suspect. They haven't really noticed that their own great leap forward is running up against physical, and logical, constraints. Reality, whether physical or fiscal or military, doesn't actually change if you try to hide it with smoke-and-mirrors. Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger showed that you can pretend to win a war when you aren't winning it for 10 years, but, eventually, reality wins.

An interesting post by Stuart Standiford in the Oildrum blog, has this remarkable graph, based on a study by Webster, et al. in the 9/16/2005 issue of Science.

Although global warming has not increased the frequency of hurricanes, it seems to have increased their intensity, as the Kerry Emanuel paper I mentioned in a previous post shows, and here we see an amazing upward trend in the percentage of category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the past 30 years. This is true worldwide--in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, as well as the Atlantic. The percentage of such storms has doubled in that time period.

Once you realize that global warming is going to have unpleasant, but to a some extent knowable, consequences, you can prepare for that. You have to think in a new way about disaster preparedness, for one thing. You have to harden certain infrastructures like levees. You have to move away from an oil and gas economy, especially when one quarter of our oil and gas comes from the Gulf of Mexico. (There are other reasons for doing that, ultimately more compelling, having to do with peak oil.) The Bush administration is absolutely unwilling to do these things, preferring talking points to science.

Bush and Rove and the the right wing punditocracy who think agitprop and spin can overcome reality will run into the same thing that believers in cargo cults did. Reality doesn't respond to faith-based initiatives. Unfortunately, the damage these people do is about the only tangible thing that will emerge from their delusions.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Thinking about Rita

As of a few minutes ago, Rita is a category 5 hurricane, with sustained winds of 165 mph. The National Hurricane Center 2:55 update is below.

WTNT63 KNHC 211955
255 PM CDT WED SEP 21 2005


Austin is pretty far inland, but if the hurricane stays on the projected track we'll be getting winds of 50-75 mph and a considerable potential for local flooding. Since I live too close to Onion Creek, this concerns me. Also, the TAOS hazard model gives us a good chance power outages of unknown duration. So, this afternoon I will be getting some new batteries for flashlights and radios. But mainly, the hazard those of who live on Onion Creek face is enough rain to put the creek really high out out of its banks. This has happened during hurricanes in the past, in fact the most severe recorded floods on the creek have been due to rains from stalled hurricanes. Having almost been caught in my house during the last flood, I will probably evacuate with my daughter and the dog and the cats on Friday, if things still look bad locally.

My hope, of course, both for myself and the people who live on the coast, is that the the hurricane diminishes in intensity in the next couple of days. Supposedly the water in the western Gulf is a little cooler than the water where it is now, which will decrease wind speed and storm surge.

A direct hit on Galveston by a cat 5 hurricane would very likely be a real disaster.

Let us hope for cool water in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Secrets of the graveyard

I wrote a short piece here about two cemeteries in Austin. Meditating in cemeteries is an ancient Buddhist practice, which is not why I visit graveyards, but, as a Buddhist, the existence of Buddhist scriptures 2000 years old recommending it enables me to claim some spiritual reason for my habit of walking in cemeteries--provided I am willing to break the 4th Precept, which forbids lying. In other words, it really isn't the reason.

But it sounds like a good thing to do, going to the graveyard and meditating on life's transience. I have on a few occasions undertaken to do just that, but have been driven out by mosquitoes or leaf-blower noise or widow ladies scowling at me as they brought flowers for Fritz's grave near where I was sitting. So it doesn't work. But I like the idea, even if it doesn't pan out for me personally.

What I like about graveyards is the lives you just have glimpses of, or can imagine, maybe from a hint on the tombstone inscription. Not to mention the lives of the living, the widow lady with the flowers, and the man who waters the grass on his wife's grave, or the old man who runs the cemetery association that owns Live Oak cemetery where my wife is buried, who unfailing complains to me, when I run into him every few months, that my wife's grave is too cluttered and disordered.

Plus I like the esthetics, usually austere but sometimes, as in Mexican graveyards, the opposite of austere, and I like the landscaping, or the lack of it, and the astonishing cultural specificity and conservatism--up until recently, anyway, of funerary customs and art. For one example, that I saw yesterday, the Texas-German tombstones decorated with pre-Christian hex symbols, that the stonecarvers probably had no idea of the origin of.

Yesterday I walked in the old Oakwood Cemetery in downtown Austin, which was the big municipal graveyard for a hundred and fifty years (full up, now), and the prestige place to be buried. Lots of obelisks and marble mausoleums. I tend to ignore those.

I also found this--I haven't had time to try to find the story that goes with it. If past experience is a guide, I won't be able to. I was looking at the old Beth Israel portion of the graveyard, and noticed the stone below:

Elias Olenick's tombstone

Elias Olenick, native of Poland, age 38 years 8 months, murdered at Austin December 13, 1877. May his soul rest in peace.

This is very unusual--not to get murdered, in Texas--but for a tombstone to give the cause of death. For the most part, Jewish graves in Texas are undistinguishable from Anglo protestant ones, except, sometimes, for the lettering. The overall look, from a distance, is the same. Jews, at least Texas Jews, seem to have taken pains, in death, to fit in with their neighbors, unlike every other cultural group, which tried to preserve its differences, and unlike the dominant cultural group, white protestants, who, to everyone's great misfortune then and now, didn't give a rat's ass about their neighbors.

But I digress. A quick search on the web, not the best place for this sort of thing, turns up only that he was a shopkeeper, who was murdered in his dry goods store. No details. I'll put it on my list of things to look up next time I go the the downtown public library, where there is a cardfile index and microfilm archive of the Austin newspaper for the 1800s. Still not something you can look up on a computer.

I would not bet on being able to find out the story. Old Texas newspapers were laconic about this sort of thing, except in cases where a minority member, unstead of being the victim, was the accused.

I am guessing--in the total absence of information--that Elias was either murdered because he was Jewish, or that his murderer was set free because his victim was Jewish, and that the inscription, which as I said is highly unusual, was a small but more or less permanent protest. I'll let you know if I find out anything one way or the other.

At the far end of the cemetery from the old Jewish section is Baylor Baynham Palmer's grave--I stopped by it to see if I could get a photo, but the light was bad and the inscription, obscured by lichen, was not legible. But the tombstone says, on one side:
Baylor Baynham Palmer
Born [illegible] Virginia, died 1885
Captain of Artillery under General Lee
This cross [ with x inscribed in stone] was on his forehead,
this star [inscribed star] stood over him
He tried to be his brother's keeper and failed
and hid himself under the name of
The Lone Palm Tree

At the top of the stone, are two crossed palm fronds. On the other side, at the top of the stone, the name on the stone is "Lone Palm Tree."

I did search the local paper archives for the Lone Palm Tree, and found his death notice, but it said only that he was a beekeeper. I am guessing post traumatic stress syndrome, and suicide, but, who knows? The secret of the inscription could be anything. And--too bad for nosy people like me--the secret is probably lost forever.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The road to serfdom

I am offering a few remarks today on the last David Brooks column I will be able to read at a fair price, and very likely the last David Brooks column I will ever feel obliged or even tempted to read, given that the New York Times wants $50 a year to read their op-ed columnists, starting tomorrow. (I'll miss Krugman, but I wouldn't be surprised if he finds another venue, whether by being fired or by looking around one day at the company he is keeping, and deciding to move on.)

Brooks in his over-the-top effusiveness today sounds like like he is channeling a Pravda editorialist after Uncle Joe announced the Hitler-Stalin Pact. I mean, you'd think Brooks had been listening to the Gettysburg Address or the Sermon on the Mount. Now what Bush actually said, was that he proposed to open the floodgates of wealth to Halliburton and Bechtol in rebuilding New Orleans even as wages are cut and public schools are shut down. The rush of the heavyweight porkers to the public trough could be heard as a low, if metaphysical, rumble providing the true musical accompaniment to Bush's speech. For Brooks, that's the music of the spheres.
Bush proposed an Urban Homestead Act, which will draw enterprising people to the area, giving them an opportunity to own property so long as they're willing to work with private agencies to put up their own homes. He proposed individual job training accounts, so much of the rebuilding work can be done by former residents. Children who have left flooded areas will find themselves in a proto-school-choice program, with education dollars strapped to each individual child.

What does this mean? Well, substandard wages, and school vouchers. Brooks cannot fail to be cheered by the clear and obvious impossibility of a person working for the proposed sub-minimum wage pay scale to be able to buy one of the replacement housing units in the new and nicely gentrified New Orleans. So we will have the best of Brooks's possible worlds, a nice, southern white, Republican New Orleans. No wonder he was so ecstatic at Bush's speech.
This is an effort to transform the gulf region, which had become a disaster zone of urban liberalism. All around the South, cities are booming, but New Orleans never did. All around the country, crime was dropping, but in New Orleans it was rising. Immigrants were flowing across the land in search of opportunity, but as Joel Kotkin has observed, few were interested in New Orleans.

Translation: New Orleans was full of poor black people, criminals who voted democratic. This changes everything. Hurray!
Now the Bush administration is trying to change all that. That means trying to get around the corruption that made the city such a rotten place to do business. The White House is trying to do this by devising programs in which checks and benefits flow directly to recipients, not through local agencies.

The "direct recipients" of which Brooks speaks would be Halliburton and the friends of Mr. Allbaugh, who are, as we already see, busy on the ground.
His administration is going to fight a two-front war, against big government liberals and small government conservatives, but if he can devote himself to executing his policies, the Gulf Coast will be his T.V.A., the program that serves as a model for what can be done nationwide.

Translation: Irresponsible spending AND even lower taxes.

There is kind of an astonishing chutzpah here, even for Brooks. I guess it goes with the job, and is what it takes to imagine that heaping syrupy prose over a plan to "help" poor African Americans by paying them slave wages, and to house them in a trailerhouse shantytown while they do the heavy lifting, will hide the bitter truth. And after the reconstruction is done? Well, in tandem with the new bankruptcy laws which assure that, if they fall into bankruptcy by, say, by defaulting on the mortgages on their houses that have been bulldozed but that they still have to make payments on, or if they can't pay their medical bills if they fall off a scaffold, they will live the rest of their lives with their sub-minimum wage paycheck being garnished by the courts, in a state of perpetual indentured servitude. The old name for that condition is serfdom.

And it will be a roadmap for the future of not only America's poor, but of America's one-time middle class.

The deluge will come later.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

A visit to two cemeteries

Friday afternoon I drove past a little Mexican graveyard in south Austin, Cementerio María de la Luz, near my house, and since I had my camera with me, I decided to stop. Mexican cemeteries are beautiful. Actually, cemeteries of all kinds are, in one way or another, emotionally powerful and moving. But Mexican cemeteries are what I would call beautiful. I took a few photographs. Then I went on my way to the old, much larger so-called Anglo cemetery, the Boggy Creek graveyard, where I often go birdwatching.

I don't think the difference between the two is as much a view of death, as a view of life. Old "Anglo" cemeteries in Texas tend towards the grim and austere, though not so much as in New England. You won't find winged death's heads and "prepare for death, and follow me" verses on old Texas tombstones. Instead you will find sentimental doggerel or bible verses. But the overall look is still in the vicinity of the plain and unadorned. And there can be a certain loveliness to it.

Even though I began with a mention of the Mexican graveyard, I'll first show a picture of the Anglo cemetery, because I want to end this story with remarks about a grave in the Mexican camposanto.

Boggy Creek Graveyard.

There is a sad story at the beginning of the Boggy Creek graveyard, as with all graveyards, but this sad story survives: John Davis, in 1859, was part of a wagon train of occasional lumberjacks traveling to the pine forest in Bastrop, 30 miles away from Austin. They were camped along the way, and during the night John was sprayed by a skunk. When he ran shouting, possibly cursing, through the camp, he was mistaken for a Comanche raider and shot and killed.

His father, Jenkins Davis, who owned this land, brought his son back and buried him here. From our distance of a century and a half you could call it a funny story, for a moment at least, but I'm sure Jenkins loved his son as much as any of us love our own children.

Other settlers in the Manchaca community nearby were buried here. One of my Grandfather McCulloch's first cousins is here. By now it has about 1500 occupants. It's near my house. The reason I go birdwatching here is that it's quiet and little visited, and surrounded by a scrub cedar forest on 3 sides. It's owned by a Masonic lodge, which has far more members buried here than presently show up for meetings.

Cemetery shrike

To return to what should be at the beginning, in a properly written story, all we know of the origin of the Mexican graveyard is that a little girl, María de la Luz, daughter of some people traveling through, died and was buried here in 1912. (Most of the Mexican residents of Texas north of San Antonio were ethnically cleansed after the Texas Revolution in 1836. There were very few Mexican residents north or east of San Antonio until the Mexican Revolution in the early years of the 20th century, the turmoil of which led to a big wave of immigrants.) By the 1940s it had been become the graveyard for the small Mexican community in far south Austin. Like the Boggy Creek cemetery, it is now pretty much full, though both still have occasional burials.

The most shocking difference between the two cemeteries is color. Vibrant, saturated color. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.
A blue cross

An old grave marker

Painted Jesus

A burial from the 1990s

A final note: I was reading that the Defense Department has begun targeting hispanics for recruitment, because recruitment for whites and African-Americans is falling. They plan to appeal to Mexican cultural norms of male honor and courage, on the one hand, and the desires of all immigrants to be more American than the Americans, on the other hand, to encourage them to join up. Actually, the recruiters have done this fairly successfully for many years. Here, freshly decorated, is the grave of Victor Flores, Lance Corporal, US Marine Corps, who died in Vietnam in 1965 at the age of 20. He would be 60 this year. Somebody tends to this grave, 40 years after his death.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Friday cat and mockingbird blogging

Here's Gray in his favorite niche napping with his head against the wall. Gray is a strange cat. He also refuses to drink water except running from a faucet.

Meanwhile, here's a mockingbird in my back yard, greeting the sunrise

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

What's the difference between Mike Brown and George Bush?

Well, Brown is not afraid of horses. And Bush, sadly, still has a job. But otherwise, not much, other than the buck having stopped, for the moment, with Brown, who, like President Incurious George, had little interest in the details of governance, preferring to leave that to the underlings who, somewhere down the line, were presumed to have the expertise and conviction to actually do their jobs. Trouble is, you had to go way down the line to find them. They had been replaced with clones of Mike Brown. After--what is it, 5 years of Bush?--the non-governance team had a deep bench.

Between Brown and the President was Mike Chertoff. Under the National Response Plan, he is the guy actually responsible, in the event of a disaster, for declaring an "incident of national significance" which is needed to activate the plan. He did so on the evening of August 30, some 36 hours after the hurricane struck, and three days after the President declared a state of emergency and four days after the governor of Louisiana did so.

The National Response Plan, which specifies that the federal government can and must take immediate emergency action with or without the permission of governors and mayors, is activated only when the secretary of Homeland Security declares an "incident of national significance." At that point, "notification and full coordination with the States will occur, but the coordination process must not delay or impede the rapid deployment and use of critical resources"

Must...not...delay...or...impede...the rapid deployment and use of critical resources. So let's say the governor and the mayor were asleep at the wheel, as the apologists for Bush wish to think. For the sake of the argument, as we say. That does not absolve Bush, Chertoff, and Brown of their responsibilities under the National Response Plan, quoted, in small part, above.

But gee, the Plan (and it's almost impossible for me to keep my fingers from putting quotes around the word) does not seem to have been set in motion until the whole world, or at least the whole world that reads newspapers or watches tv news, or even watches Fox News, knew that there had been an enormous disaster. Chertoff, the guy in charge, waited 36 hours to tell FEMA to swing into action. What was he doing? Well, he was imagining that he read headlines, which, as I have pointed out in other posts, did not exist. Headlines saying that New Orleans had dodged the bullet. Who knows what else he was doing. And what was Bush doing, the evening of August 30? He was in San Diego, declaring "mission accomplished" for World War II.

Sometime that same day, he apparently also found time to create a "task force" to take charge of what Chertoff was already, under the law, in charge of, according to yesterday's Knight-Ridder story on the mystery delay. White House officials are currently unwilling to "explain why Bush felt the need to appoint a separate task force."

I think this may be the evening when Bush's retinue of trained hamsters finally worked up the nerve to tell their boss there was a problem. "No, really, a _big_ problem, Boss." I'll have to check the timeline on that.

But it's Brown who goes to the wall, and deservedly so, given his performance after his boss told him to go to work. But Perhaps Chertoff should follow him. The procedure for firing Bush is very involved and fraught with complications, so we have to forget that, unfortunately, if only because of his designated replacement.

Interestingly, the only agency of the federal government that did its job all along seems to have acted without authorization from anyone, thank God. That was the Coast Guard, which, although folded into Homeland Security like FEMA, has not yet been staffed with people whose expertise is in draping the bunting on the Boss's podium

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Why the time for the blame game is now

Well, actually, it's not a game. But it's pretty damn important we figure out exactly what went wrong, what was not done, and what could have been done better. And we need to do that while people are still upset enough to do something to make sure those problems are fixed.

Something sure as hell needs to be fixed. Maybe lots of things need to be fixed. And to do that we need to assign blame. It's nothing personal.

Also, this is fresh in our memory. We should not forget the human face of things going catastrophically wrong. We should not forget, or become emotionally dead to the fact, that a great city has been physically destroyed and its inhabitants dispersed, possibly never to return. An unknown number of people have died--many, maybe most, because of avoidable mistakes. If we wait and immerse the nation for six months in the poisonous electronic soup of Fox News, enough people will be saying shit happens, cities get destroyed, so what--let's get back to celebrity trials or who Brad is divorcing now.

It is worth noting, in passing (nothing new, of course), that the people who are saying now is not the time for blame are not altogether honorable in that insistence, inasmuch as they they are fully engaged in blame themselves--of local officials-- which in their eyes apparently does not fall under the heading of blame. Example:
I turned on the TV Monday night and in less than a minute encountered the sliminess of Joe Scarborough up to his hip waders in an unusually oily and toxic blame project (not quite at the mutagenic smoke-and-fumes superfund level of Fox, but still what you might call a neural biohazard) directed at the mayor of New Orleans the very next breath after Joe said we should put aside partisanship and blame. The very next breath. I turned the TV off again. I have had enough.

So how should we assign blame?

First, we ought to ask if the disaster could have been prevented. I think the answer is yes. Surely nobody who believes in American engineering and can-do problem-solving would be so defeatist as to believe that we can't do as well as the Dutch in building levees. Surely nobody thinks we are totally helpless to preserve the marshlands that once protected the city. Many really smart people have for years been proposing both environmental and engineering measures that, if fully carried out, would have left the city intact after a category 5 hurricane.

What do these proposed measures have in common? Two things. They are costly, and they are opposed by the conservatives who control federal spending, and who want to drown government (except wartime government) in the bathtub, kinda like New Orleans got drowned. Maybe that's what Grover Norquist really meant. Drown government. Drown cities. He's the man who invented the doctrine let the cat out of the bag--you'll have to decide for yourselves if that's what he meant.

But I digress--now that we can see what was at stake, if levees and protective marshes cost ten billion dollars, we would say that's a heckuva bargain. So in assigning blame, try--try just as hard as you can-- to imagine the response of the current House of Representatives, Senate, and President to a request (before this disaster) for 10 billion dollars to protect New Orleans. If you can't imagine a favorable response from such people, no matter how hard you try, you are, at least, still sane. As recent history shows, instead of the Corps of Engineers getting billions, they did not even get the $105 million they requested for levee maintenance. It got cut to $40 million. That money was needed for a $400 million dollar bridge to an uninhabited, but nevertheless apparently Republican, island in Alaska.

It's not like we can't afford to spend billions. Look at Iraq. Look at Halliburton contracts. Look at what we are going to dole out to Bechtel and Halliburton and the other favored no-bid contractors to rebuild New Orleans now. Apparently FEMA is already hiring Blackwater mercenaries for combat duty in New Orleans. So we can afford the money. We just couldn't afford what we needed when we needed it. By "we" I mean, well, you know who. The guy who does not want to play blame games.

Second, given the initial mistake, which we will surely now correct, of not protecting the city with adequate levees, we have to ask what could have been done to minimize the human toll of the inevitable flood. Who had the resources to deal with it? Who had the mission, assigned by the laws and directives creating the Homeland Security apparatus, of taking charge in a catastrophe which overwhelms local resources? Who did everybody presume had a plan? Who did not have such a plan, despite the billions spent on homeland security since 9/11?

Who was presumed, under Homeland Security's National Response Plan, to be in charge. Well, as it happens, in that plan, we learn that "The president leads the nation in responding effectively and ensuring the necessary resources are applied quickly and efficiently."

Wow, there's your problem, right there. I don't think we need to pursue the blame game any further.

Well, actually, that's not the whole truth. But that's the essence of the problem. Once we have that truth firmly in mind, we can start looking at specific failures, like those of the sad clowns like Chertoff and the clueless horse-lawyer who has now duly and loyally taken the bullet for his bosses; they, of course, hoping that will be the end of it, and he, no doubt, hoping against hope, that they will reward him with white-collar employment. Somewhere. Eventually.

Then we can start exploring the vastness of the non-plan Chertoff's agency squandered billions on.

Oh, yeah, I think the mayor and the governor had no plan either. Having one would have helped, though I don't see how that alone could have been enough. But I think whoever replaces them--and they deserve replacement--should make sure the city and state does indeed prepare to do better just in case the feds fail to stop another disaster.

And if we don't soon turn the malignant plutocrats and heartless psychopaths and mad-dog religious extremists running the country out of office, we will all need our own personal disaster plans.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Wild Austin: Occasional notes

On my walk yesterday, whose basic purpose was to cleanse my mind of all thoughts of George Bush, and which only partially accomplished that purpose, I took a couple of photos in Seawright Park by Slaughter Creek. The first is of some wild grapes. These are called fox grapes by some people, but are more properly called fall grapes, because the fruits get ripe in late September and October. They are also called uvas cimarronas (which basically means wild grapes) by immigrants from northern Mexico, where the species is also common.

The fruits are very sweet and tasty when ripe (they are almost ripe now), but small with big seeds. Supposedly they make good wine, but the plants are not abundant. You would have to find a way to cultivate them to get enough juice to make as much as a single bottle of wine. I have read that they are difficult to propagate. The vine I took a picture of may be the only one of its kind in a 300 acre park along Slaughter creek.
Another native, the mustang grape, which ripens earlier in the summer, has much larger fruit, and is much more common. Sadly, its grapes are more or less inedible, and its juice undrinkable, no matter how prepared, and god knows I have tried everything myself. The juice is acidic enough to strip paint off furniture, and has essentially no sugar content. If you add enough sugar to make wine, chances are you will either get very powerful vinegar you can use to unclog drains, or wine you will regret, with something beyond what winesnobs call skunky overtones--you get the skunk itself.

You can make jelly out of mustang grapes, but I guess you would have to go further out of your way than I am willing to go to develop a taste for it.

I am probably missing a bet by not capitalizing on healthful properties of grapeseed anti-oxidants and marketing mustang grapeseeds, because mustang grape antioxidants have gotta be industrial strength, high-powered chemicals.

But below is the much better tasting fall grape. I found a few ripe enough to eat. I wish there had been more.

Vitis berlandieri

But here we have a deer, not too far from the grapevine, possibly also waiting for a chance at these grapes.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

A few personal thoughts on 9/11

On September 11 I had just been back at work a day or two, working half days. It was eleven days after Kay--my wife--had been diagnosed with leukemia. I was still sleeping beside her at night in a chair in her hospital room. I think she had just begun her first round of chemotherapy. She was feeling a little better from the life-sustaining treatments she was getting, like blood and platelet transfusions, and had not yet started to feel bad from the chemo. So she felt, in a certain sense, OK, yet she--and I--were just coming to terms with the notion that she might die.

The oncologist had told us that she had about a 50/50 chance of being "cured," which he meant to be a hopeful statistic, but which sounded too much like a coin toss to be taken as such by lay-people like Kay and me. Since the diagnosis I had done a lot of searching of medical databases available on the internet, and had discovered that the oncologist was fudging his numbers somewhat, giving us a statistic uncorrected for my wife's age and the specific subtype of acute myelogenous leukemia she had, which, if taken into account, gave us much less hopeful figures than the coin toss.

I recall coming to a horrible realization at about that time that there were about three chances in four she would be dead within a year.

But in the short run, we were optimistic. Because she had come very close to dying a week before. She was better now, and the chemo would certainly knock back the leukemia, if not eradicate it. Optimism is the wrong word. We were relieved that she had survived the immediate crisis of the week before, but we were suddenly thinking of her future life, our life together, in weeks and month, not years. Which was a very odd transition, from a week and a half before, before she had gotten sick.

This is the context of 9/11 from me. When my boss told me what was going on that morning, I said I'm going back to the hospital, I need to be with my wife. I don't think I came to work for several days after that. Kay and I watched the horror on the TV in her room, footage imprinted on all our minds that--sort of by common agreement, it seems--is never now shown, except maybe once in a great while a you will see a photo. I don't think I have seen any video footage in 2 or 3 years.

We were still trying to absorb the danger that Kay faced, and you might think that it made us more aware of the human import of what was going on than we would have otherwise been. In a way it did, but no more so than for everybody else in America, I think. The raw edge fear and loss that surely was felt by people on the scene, and of people who had loved ones killed or missing, and of people who feared for the safety of friends, was right there for us. Kay's room felt like she was in the world trade center and we did not know if she would get out. So that made us closer to it. But somehow I think everybody felt that. Leukemia had little to do with it.

I remember thinking , and I remember Kay mentioning it too, that there is a difference between real loss and symbolic loss. For a while, I think all across America, symbolic loss, the words of the talking heads, got overwhelmed by real loss, inescapable in the images. Real loss is personal and one-by-one, and the significance of 9/11 to me is that for a while most Americans knew the difference. It was probably most acute for me in seeing the people who jumped. Kay and I had already taken refuge in the idea of weeks and months of life left--the people who jumped had seconds.

Kay and I were pretty much like the rest of America--her 8 1/2 months to live was infinitely longer than the 6 or 7 seconds of free fall from the burning offices--and we all were helplessly transfixed by those few seconds.

Earlier today, I just got a glimpse of some ceremony in Washington, with people I won't even name standing solemnly at attention, with flags, bunting, and taps played on a bugle. Symbolic loss, used by the worst of men, for the worst of purposes.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Just exactly what kind of camps are these?

I have just read an interesting first person account of a visit to a camp for evacuees being set up in a remote mountain church camp in Oklahoma. The author, who unfortunately is not identified, tells of a thwarted family effort to deliver supplies to the camp shortly before evacuees were scheduled to arrive.

Possibly I am being punked here, but it looks to me like the article is authentic--for one thing the author has a lot of pictures of the trip, including some of the Oklahoma Highway patrol guarding the gates, and seems familiar with the camp by virtue of being a member of one of the churches with cabins in the camp. ("Cabins" seem to be steel building dormitories, in some instances at least, perhaps one of the reasons the place was chosen.)

They ran into a lot of obstacles. In fact they were only allowed in only because of some confusion as to whether they were authorized charity workers. The family's offering of clothing was rejected, possibly reasonably, on the grounds that there was plenty of clothing. But milk, food (except pop tarts), and toys were disallowed also.

Apples were rejected for the following reasons:
It looks like you've got about 10 apples there. I'm about to bring in 40 men. What would we do then?"
My mother, in her sweet, soft voice says, "Quarter them?"
"No ma'am. FEMA said no...It could cause a riot. You don't understand the type of people that are about to come here...."

OK, part of this is just bureaucratic stupidity, to be expected, but the riot business is beyond stupid--it's racism, pure and simple.

Besides racism, or as an adjunct issue to is, is the question of whether this, in a remote area of the Arbuckle Mountains, is a de-facto prison.

He (the FEMA guy) then proceeds to tell us that some churches had already enquired into whether they could send a van or bus on Sundays to pick up any occupants of their cabins who might be interested in attending church. FEMA will not allow this. The occupants of the camp cannot leave the camp for any reason. If they leave the camp they may never return. They will be issued FEMA identification cards and "a sum of money" and they will remain within the camp for the next 5 months.

If what the FEMA guy told the author of the article is true, sounds like the occupants of the camp will, actually, technically, be allowed to leave, but on the condition that they not come back. Moreover--think about this--this place is in the middle of the Oklahoma mountains, 3 miles from the nearest house, and 8 miles from the nearest town, which itself has a population of 2000 people.

So even if the people _wanted_ to leave, how could they manage to do it? Walk down the road and thumb a ride? From who? So they walk 8 miles to town? Then what?

There is something basically wrong with this FEMA dispersal of the New Orleans population. I have also read about a relocation camp in Utah, of all places. Why can't the people evacuated from their homes be placed nearer to New Orleans than the Arbuckle Mountains, or Utah?

I know there are unused military bases closer to New Orleans than these places.
And no matter where they are sent, they should not be treated like prisoners, and kept behind guarded gates. The function of guarded gates, in this context is either to keep prisoners in, or keep reporters out.

Neither should be the case.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Is it respect for the dead, or an effort to hide reality?

Our government doesn't want pictures taken of the dead, out of respect for the survivors who might discover uncle Joe's death in a truly shocking way, from a newspaper or TV image. Normally I would have some sympathy with this, and I could understand this wish if expressed by a normal government headed by a normal president, but in this case it is more like an accused axe-murderer not wanting the jury to see the results of his work, than it is like respect.

Idyllopus in Meanwhile Back at the Ranch writes:
First we were told hundreds, maybe thousands. Then we were told thousands. Then we were told 5000. Then we were told 10,000. Then the news was that FEMA was delivering 25,000 body bags.
But DMort is telling morticians to prepare for 40,000 bodies.

At some point Mr. Bush and his hirelings are going to have to start telling us how many people they allowed to drown. Or is that going to be postponed indefinitely while we get down to the hard work of repairing Trent Lott's second home? Our this-is-hard-work president has already mentioned wants to be able to sit with Trent and reminisce and make jokes about the President's binge drinking in New Orleans in the old days, wistfully drinking diet cola while the Senator sips mint juleps on his renovated front porch. I hope I am exaggerating--Bush only mentioned that he wants to be able to sit with Trent on his new front porch, so I am just guessing, based on his behaviour during his New Orleans photo-op tour, as to what he will talk about.

I have never been able to lower my expectations enough to match the real-life performance of this sad occupant of what was once Abraham Lincoln's house.

Friday cat blogging

Gray about to push the calendar onto the floor

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Lies of the death-monkey

A depressing, if informal gauge of the effectiveness of the the slime machine's blame-the-governor, blame-the-mayor, blame-the-blame-game, blame anybody but the President and the malignantly incompetent sad patronage clowns with which the President has staffed FEMA, is the information my daughter got yesterday from the shuttle driver on her way to the airport in Denver, namely that Bush himself spoke with the Mayor of New Orleans two days ahead of the hurricane and insisted that the Mayor mandatorily evacuate his city, and the Mayor _refused_. Hence, the catastrophe was all the fault of local officials.

This must be true, said the Denver shuttle driver, because he got the information in front of his own tv set from the "liberal" CNN. (The word liberal seems to have drifted far from any coherent meaning, thanks in equal part to the efforts of Karl Rove and his helpmeets, and thanks in part I suppose, to the degradation of even basic civic education in the public schools under the guidance of the bathtub strangler, Grover Norquist, and his legion of willing flat-earth and intelligent-design Republican accomplices.)

My daughter's man on the street additionally volunteered that Bush was ready and willing with the National Guard, but that he could not send them because the Governor had not requested help.

The saddest part of this, I suppose, is the unwillingness of a large part of the population, about 1/3 adult Americans, according to a poll I saw today, to let the reality of what they saw with their own eyes interfere with what they willfully believe, eyes tight shut, seemingly wishing on a star with ever greater intensity that the animatronic figure descending from a helicopter whose photo-op facial tics are perpetually out of sync with the emotive content of his words, is actually not what he seems but is really a president.

Their wish is as usual guided by the Rove Spin Machine and abetted by, or perhaps despite, the uncertain whitewash Fox News tried without success to splash over the President and his men, given that several Fox reporters on the ground openly rebelled on live tv before a national audience, to speak truth to a horrified Hannity and a nonplussed O'Reilly.

The good news is that, according to the same polls, a majority of Americans think the President's disaster performance is wanting. Well that's a start. It's a long way to impeachment, but for a majority to actually see the President's incompetence and neglect does actually give me some encouragement.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

For want of a levee, a kindgom was lost

I have been thinking about some of the losses in New Orleans. Death is the most important loss. Having lost my wife 3 years ago, my awareness of how the survivors feel at such loss is still informed by that. And leaving behind pets, dogs and cats, to almost certain death, and absolutely certain confusion, terror and pain, is a kind of betrayal, necessary though it may have been, that is hard to think about.

Leaving behind friends--well, if they are alive, maybe those contacts can be reestablished.

Becoming homeless, leaving behind houses, the comforts of daily living, privacy, arranging your life away you like it, coffee whenever you feel like making it, is hard, but hopefully--certainly if the rest of us act humanely--new homes can be built and some of this can be restored. Leaving behind jobs and whatever income you had is a source of obvious anxiety. All these losses are apparent to everyone, excepting perhaps the deadened souls who lead our nation.

Leaving behind reminders of who you are and how you have lived, like mementos and photos of loved ones and friends, is less of a loss than those others, maybe, but one that will grow over time.

We Buddhists are supposed to live in the present. Right? Indeed so. In fact, as, Zen teacher Bernie Glassman said to a roomful of people learning about Buddhism, "anyone not living in the present, please stand up."

The present includes our past. Buddhists meditation furthers awareness of impermanence, but at the same time, Zen Buddhists daily recite the names of the "ancestors," the teachers of the Dharma from the time of Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni down to the name of the person who taught your own teacher the Dharma. Transmission of the Dharma mind-to-mind for two and a half millennia. Never mind that most of the early part of the list is of dubious historicity--Buddhism is not about history, but (among other things) about how the past is part of the always-changing process of our identity.

The reason I am thinking about this is that I have spent many weeks, now, recovering old photographs from damaged or forgotten negatives and slides dating back over more than 40 years of my life, scanning them and cleaning them up with photoshop, printing them, and putting them into a photo album. I consider it a meditative activity similar to chanting the names of the ancestors. I find that it feels the same. (This may just be me--other people may not feel that way at all, of course.)

Now if I lost that photo album, in a fire, or a flood, and the other photos I have kept of family and friends, and places we have been and things we have done, I would be sorry about it, because it would cut me off from some of the names of the ancestors. The ancestors would still be a part of me, of course, but access to that part of me would be harder, and I would miss it. And my daughter and stepdaughter, in time, would miss it, too, I think.

All this, losses great and small, for lack of a few million dollars to build a better levee.

Stepping back a little

I have been feeling like I have to use this blog to keep the enormity of what has gone on a little more visible, to try to keep the world from getting used to it, insofar as I can. I don't harbor illusions of grandeur, but maybe the collective weight and voice of hundreds of blogs like this, not the Daily Kos blogs, but the blogs normally about birdwatching or our dogs or our gardens or our friends or memories of our past, will have some effect.

But at a certain point I feel like I need to return to what I really write about, which is some of the things above, the personal more than the political. And yet I don't feel like I can go back to writing just about memories of trips to Central America with my family, or reflections on Zen in everyday life. I feel like I need to make those things one with the political somehow, as a way of making the tragedy real, because the reality of tragedy is always personal. Because we've been brought up on science, and especially because sane people have to defend science against yahoos, we forget that the tragedy here is not the quantifiable stuff, like the number of dead, but that with each person who dies a world dies too (I forget what writer said that, but it's true, I think.) The personal and the anecdotal (how trivial the word anecdotal sounds) are the stuff of life.

And the intersection of the political and people's real, personal, this-is-my-whole-world existence being upended and destroyed is where we are and why I am writing, and ideally at least, is where I write from. That's probably the case with most of the bloggers I read.

So I have had to stop myself, and will probably fail to stop myself, from letting my horror at these events be--in a way--trivialized by my own desire to do something about it, where I search the daily news for lies I can expose, and then shout about it--look! Look at what these people are up to! Wake up, everyone! But I think events wake people up more than my blog can.

I may be shouting tomorrow, but I hope to write better, and less, in the coming days.

It takes longer to write anything that is real and human--actually whether what I write is any good or not has gotten to be beside the point for me--so I will probably write slowly in the coming days (or I will be exposed as a person who can't very well predict my own future actions--also very possible). More stuff about crows and creeks and memories, and maybe even slower than I usually write, in that I now feel some need to make it relevant to this tragedy.

Tragedy can make loud words, my loud words at least, seem trivial, but maybe I can in small measure de-trivialize my own corner of the blogosphere, by reminding readers that local stuff, crows, and egrets, and family and friends, the world right outside my house, and inside yours--the world I prefer to write about--is the same world that the victims have, for the moment at least, been wrenched away from.

Crow is not pleased

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The mystery headline, continued

General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seems to be the latest functionary to remember a headline that never existed. Strange indeed. According the Thinkprogress web site:
Myers claimed that “most of the papers” carried that headline on Tuesday, and that the Defense Department’s response to Katrina was developed with “those words…in our minds”:
The headline, of course, in most of the papers on Tuesday — “New Orleans Dodged a Bullet,” or words to that effect. At that time, when those words were in our minds, we started working issues before we were asked, and on Tuesday, at the direction of the secretary and the deputy secretary, we went to each of the services. I called each of the chiefs of the services. One-by-one I called them and said, we don’t know what we will be asked for yet. The levees and the floodwalls had just broken and we know some of what will be asked because we had some requests for assistance already. There is probably going to be more.

If the report of Myers's peculiar recovered memory turns out to be bogus--I have not seen it reported elsewhere--I will pull this post, with a note that the words were wrongly attributed to him. But if he really remembered exactly what Chertoff remembered, a totally non-existent headline--indeed, multiple instances of a non-existent headline--it looks very much like FEMA and the military have finally leaped into action, and their joint operation to hide their incompetence, or the incompetence of the President, is one as poorly planned and executed as their response to the disaster itself.
Addendum: The Huffington Post is now reporting that Myers has remembered the same headlines that Chertoff did.

Putting false memory syndrome to work

Michael Chertoff apparently told Tim Russert on Sunday that his excuse, or rather one of his many excuses, for his bureaucracy's inaction, was that he thought the threat had ended on Tuesday: "I remember on Tuesday morning picking up newspapers and I saw headlines, 'New Orleans Dodged The Bullet.'" Actually, he said "everyone" thought that the threat was over, presumably on the basis of these headlines. But let's say only he and his underlings were misled by these strangely misguided headlines--just out of curiosity, what were the newspapers that ran them?

Happily, I can answer that, having access to the LexisNexis database, which compiles major newspaper articles, full text, including headlines.

A quick search of LexisNexis for the past week for newspapers whose headlines contained any combination of the words "orleans" and "bullet" and either "dodged" or "dodges" returns exactly zero newspapers in America which ran such a headline last Tuesday.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Government? Sorry, Bush drowned it in a bathtub

Bush strategist Grover Norquist's famous statement that conservatives intend to starve government until they can finally drown it in a bathtub seems a little ghoulish, now, doesn't it?

Conservative neglect of legitimate governmental functions and antipathy towards public works--in this case, the funding and building of adequate levees--now comes home to roost, cruelly and horribly. The expense of building category-5 hurricane proof levees and maintaining the marshlands that at one time protected New Orleans could have been but a tiny fraction of the cost of this obscene debacle.

The Bush administration dereliction of duty is pervasive and deliberate. The federal government is being systematically and deliberately sabotaged, and where possible either privatized for more efficient looting by chosen beneficiaries of public welfare like Halliburton, or its responsibilities off-loaded to increasingly overburdened and overwhelmed state and local governments and private charities.

I think as the death toll rises and the extent of the catastrophe, the total destruction of a great American city, sinks in, people will begin to ask why this happened.

Why the federal government could not afford to build adequate levees, something the Dutch willingly do as a matter of course. Why the Bush government could afford an enormous war based on lies instead.

Why after endless expressions of cheerleader rah-rah pom-pom patriotism the Bush government has failed miserably to perform the primary purpose of the Homeland Security agency they created. FEMA, which has been folded into that agency, by law is supposed to take charge of disaster relief.

Why FEMA did not have a plan to deal with a catastrophe that everyone but George Bush, Michael Chertoff, and Michael Brown apparently knew was a constant threat to New Orleans. Why FEMA had no plan whatsoever for evacuation, no plan for the rescue of trapped people, no plan for medical treatment, no plan for keeping civil order, and as a consequence there are still people still dying as of Monday, a week into the disaster in New Orleans.

Why FEMA did not pre-position supplies, boats, helicopters, field hospitals, Army units, and National Guard units for quick relief of affected areas. Why FEMA didn't approve the requests for deploying out of state National Guard troops to New Orleans for four days. Why FEMA didn't allow the military to make food and water drops for five days. Why Navy hospital ships were still sitting in port three days into the disaster.

Why FEMA didn't allow the Red Cross to set up emergency food, water and medical relief inside New Orleans.

Why FEMA is headed by a man who has no prior disaster relief or remediation experience, who was fired for incompetence from his previous job, and who stated that he believes the whole problem is that, for reasons incomprehensible to him, the poor, the infirm, and the transportation-deprived victims of this disaster brought it on themselves by their failure to heed the evacuation order.

And we might also ask what National Guard manpower and equipment needed for immediate relief after the hurricane, were simply unavailable because deployed in Bush's war.

These are questions that need to be asked, and the American people deserve some answers.

And people should begin to ask questions about the incredible callousness and indifference to human suffering displayed by a president who strums a guitar and makes tired cliche-ridden self-congratulatory speeches on the west coast while people drown, and tens of thousands of people were being abandoned to drown or die of thirst or exhaustion or disease by his ineffective government.

We don't know yet, but there is a chance that the death toll brought to by Bush's criminal indifference and malignant neglect of actual governance, will exceed that brought to us by Osama bin Laden.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

A time for finger-pointing

It's just not right for the people who have been systematically screwed by this country, from slavery to Jim Crow to the present, who, far from deserving to be drowned, in fact in a just world would would deserve compensation for the wrongs this country has done them, have been the ones we have chosen to abandon, left to drown by the government of the United States, and their bodies left to rot in the sun or float off in the water.

And for this bald-headed sunken-eyed ghoul in charge of the fatherland-security agency, Michael Chertoff, to claim that his agency, legally given the task of preparing for such a disaster, and legally given charge of dealing with its effects--for him to claim that he and his incompetent and/or criminally indifferent bureaucrats should not be held to account for the mind-boggling debacle this situation has become, and for him to insist it should be the responsibility of the states and cities to do something (a bare-faced lie, as a quick glance at the legal charge given his agency will show), and that, moreover, a hurricane followed by high water was thought by his agency to be beyond the realm of possibility, are all statements I would have thought to be themselves beyond the realm of the possible, just as they are beyond the realm of rationality, decency, honor, and truth.

The realm inhabited by these sacrificial dwarves, thrust forward by their lord and master George Bush to take a bullet for him, is indeed a realm beyond rationality, decency, honor, and truth, and that realm is the place where the current rulers of this country live.

These dwarves certainly do need to be fired, for starters. That is not too much to be hoped for. And Bush himself needs to be impeached, if criminal neglect of this magnitude should fit under the rubric of high crimes and misdemeanors, as surely in a just world it would-- but that perhaps that is too much to hope for, for now.

But it is not too much to hope that this, well, "divisive" issue be made an ever more divisive and central issue. It should be such an issue. Fingers should be pointed. Voices should be raised.

I hope there are enough decent people in this country to do something about it

The definitive answer to Michael Chertoff's lies

Well, one of countless definitive answers.

This was on Meet the Press. Aaron Broussard is the president of Jefferson Parish in New Orleans.

Russert: You just heard the director of homeland security’s explanation of what has happened this last week. What is your reaction?

Broussard: We have been abandoned by our own country. Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as one of the worst storms ever to hit an American coast. But the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history. … Whoever is at the top of this totem pole, that totem pole needs to be chainsawed off and we’ve got to start with some new leadership. It’s not just Katrina that caused all these deaths in New Orleans here. Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now...

Sir, they were told like me. Every single day. The cavalry is coming. On the federal level. The cavalry is coming. The cavalry is coming. The cavalry is coming. I have just begun to hear the hooves of the cavalry. The cavalry is still not here yet, but I have begun to hear the hooves and we're almost a week out...

Three quick examples. We had Wal-Mart deliver three trucks of water. FEMA turned them back. They said we didn’t need them. This was a week ago. FEMA, we had 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel on a Coast Guard vessel docked in my parish. When we got there with our trucks, FEMA says don’t give you the fuel. Yesterday — yesterday — FEMA comes in and cuts all of our emergency communication lines. They cut them without notice. Our sheriff, Harry Lee, goes back in, he reconnects the line. He posts armed guards and said no one is getting near these lines…

I want to give you one last story and I’ll shut up and let you tell me whatever you want to tell me. The guy who runs this building I’m in, Emergency Management, he’s responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home and every day she called him and said, “Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?” and he said, “Yeah, Mama, somebody’s coming to get you.” Somebody’s coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody’s coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody’s coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody’s coming to get you on Friday… and she drowned Friday night. She drowned Friday night! [Sobbing] Nobody’s coming to get us. Nobody’s coming to get us…

Sunday heron blogging

It seems odd that normal lives can go on. That I can go birdwatching. That birds go about their business.

An immature green heron at McKinney Falls State Park yesterday

...a snowy egret standing nearby

...and I managed to get them both in the same frame

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The shameless spin begins

Today, Saturday, day 6 of this ongoing catastrophe, Michael Chertoff held a press conference in Washington with a group of "reporters" even more docile than one expects inside the beltway. Evidently all the real-life reporters, a good many of whom have rediscovered how to ask hard questions, are still on the scene of the disaster.

Chertoff inaugurated what I am assuming are the talking points to be issued to all Republicans immediately, and those talking points are that FEMA had a plan for a hurricane, but was taken by surprise when a second disaster struck after the hurricane--high water.

Now you see Bush, mis-spokenness prone as he is, bungled essentially the same talking points yesterday by being too specific when he claimed, falsely of course, that no one had anticipated the levees breaking. Since a few seconds of Google searching provided instances to the contrary going back many years, Bush has had to stay away from that topic since then and be carefully shielded from rogue reporters who might follow up on the subject.

But Chertoff stuck doggedly to the new party line, at least as long as I could stand to watch him, and maintained that New Orleans had been hit by two separate events, and goodness gracious who could have anticipated that? One being the sudden appearance of a strong hurricane out of nowhere, and the other being high waters, and such unforeseen bad luck that was.

Chertoff pretended that the chances of the two events, hurricane and flood, happening in temporal proximity were so far off the charts that FEMA was not at fault for not having prepared for both at once.

So, the talking points, summarized: And this hurricane boiled up out of the Gulf so quickly. We didn't even have time to activate our plan, which was for the hurricane, not the rising water, because who could have foreseen that they would occur together?

And here is the auxiliary talking point, emphasizing the hurricane's sudden arrival out of nowhere: Besides, even if we had been prepared for both...this hurricane boiled up out of the Gulf so quickly. It just didn't give us enough advance notice that we could activate our plan--and we did have a plan, I swear we did --just not a plan for the separate rising water event.

Did Bush hire him because of this thing about bald heads?

Addendum: CNN's website has the following, which completely demolishes Chertoff's claim that the hurricane's unexpectedly quick arrival at unexpected strength left FEMA with not enough time to activate their imaginary plan. "As far back as Friday, August 26, the National Hurricane Center was predicting the storm could be a Category 4 hurricane at landfall, with New Orleans directly in its path."

The storm struck New Orleans 4 days later as a category 4 hurricane at landfall.

Meanwhile, John Tierney says let them eat cake

John Tierney, carrying Republican odiousness to a new level in his New York Times column today, plunges over the ethical cliff to close in on the moral free-fall of FEMA director Brown who said the whole problem was that the victims just should have obeyed the evacuation order in the first place. Tierney, proving that a feather will fall just as fast in a moral vacuum as an ingot of pig iron, said (if I may unkindly, but correctly, sum up his column), well, hey, the city should just not have been there in the first place. And since its inhabitants insist on being in a place they should not be, the solution is to have, ahem, private flood insurance. Yes. And, if you can't afford private flood insurance, well, gee, that's too bad. You eat the loss..."if you live," which is the logical end of his repugnant column, but one even a worst-case Republican such as himself, dares not actually write.

Tierney went off in the middle of his repugnant column on how government botches everything. Well, it's true it has botched the war in Iraq pretty badly. Maybe we should confine Tierney's condemnation of "government" to "the Bush regime." That would make sense. The one thing Republicans do supremely well, is push their way to the front of the public trough and get their snouts in and working at the very moment their colleagues and fellow-travelers are sabotaging all the legitimate functions of government, which, of course, precisely include things like--flood control. Tierney, astoundingly, seems to imagine that the Dutch flood control system, which he commends, was built by Walmart rather than by the Dutch government. Sometimes you just have to shake your head about guys like this.

Maureen Dowd, writing in the same day's New York Times, points out that the original New Orleans Corps of Engineers modest $105 million budget request had been reduced to $40 million by the Republicans. But the budget that got passed included a $231 million bridge in Alaska to an uninhabited island, as a reward, of course, to Alaska Republicans. Louisiana's flood control budget, like Louisiana's National Guard, was sent to Iraq. And Alaska, it seems.

Tierney believes government, where it is allowed to exist, should be like fire departments. FEMA in his view is too big. It's true that FEMA has been paralyzed ever since it was folded into the Republican fatherland-security mega-bureaucracy. But during the years before that, FEMA had been doing a very good job, according to all I have read.

The problem, during this disgraceful administration, is that FEMA has been staffed with political hacks. It's director, Michael Brown, is an incompetent political appointee, with no disaster-preparedness background or expertise, or apparently, even any interest in his job. Proof of that is before us now in the sodden ruins of New Orleans and the third-world disaster this administration has allowed it to become. FEMA under Michael Brown and fatherland security director Michael Chertoff, it is now clear, did not actually have a disaster plan. And as Bush may finally discover here, spin is not actually a substitute for a plan.

The problem is not government. The problem is this government. And people like John Tierney. And Brown. And Chertoff. And most of all, and worst of all, George Bush.

Update: I have to add a quote from Lawyers, Guns and Money which sums the whole Republican schtick, and the Tierney's, very nicely. "The Republicans have managed a nifty trick over the last twenty-five years. They have worked ceaselessly to make government less effective, while at the same time deriving political benefit from inadequate government."
I don't think they are gonna make a clean getaway this time. This is too much.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Katrina and the Republicans

It seems to me that more Republicans than just Bush and Cheney and Rove bear responsibility for this debacle--their amen-section in the House and Senate should share in that. Here is my open letter to the worst of my two senators, John Cornyn:

Sen. John Box Turtle Cornyn
Senate Office Bldg
Washington, DC

Dear Senator Cornyn:

Let me start by quoting our so-called President as he made, yesterday, the most outrageous and imbecile and morally despicable statement of all the many such statements made by slack-jawed politicians since Katrina came ashore.

"I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees" said George W. Bush.

President Bush must then be the single most clueless individual, or the most dishonest one, on the entire face of the planet. This breach of the levees has been predicted for years. And as everyone knows, Republicans have eviscerated the Corps of Engineers levee projects, sending those funds away to Iraq, and moreover Republicans have produced the situation where we cannot rescue or feed or help the survivors because the National Guard is away in Iraq as well.

But I suppose this sort of thing is to be expected of a President who pretends to play a guitar while New Orleans drowns, and of his camp-followers in the Senate.

You people are unbelievable, and as your unwilling constituent I think you are quite genuinely responsible for this catastrophe! Yes, you, your very own personal popinjay well-tailored air-brushed-web-photo self, Senator Box Turtle. You and all the Republican liars and fools and tools and toadies who have enabled the moronic, personality-disordered sub-zero-functional occupant of the White House to bleed away military lives and resources (men and women we now need and who are now unavailable when we need them) on your neocon fool's-errand in Iraq.

Not to mention rendering FEMA completely useless by making it part of a giant, now paralyzed, bureaucracy, whose only success story so far has been one of bullying librarians into silence about government snooping. You can't even get bottled water into the superdome! How could you have expected to actually win a war?!

But wait. You probably didn't expect to win it, right? Sorry. I forgot. The one thing you are supremely competent at is lying. That's the thing that has saved Bush's bacon over and over, and you probably think will save yours. Maybe it will.

But I am an optimist and have some hope that the American people, and maybe one day even the faithful chuckleheaded rightwing Christian Taliban Republican base in Texas, will see through you people at last, owing in part to this horrorshow you have brought to us as one of our great cities disappears before our eyes, courtesy of tax breaks for the rich and the inundation of the levees you wouldn't fund and the no-show of our National Guard which you sent elsewhere, and your total INCOMPETENCE, so vast and jaw-dropping that even the most buffoonish Republican in Williamson County, Texas, has to notice that you lack the capability to successfully air-drop ten dollars worth of bottled water to people dying of thirst on the former freeways of New Orleans.

If you, and the people like you, had any shame or decency you would simply implode and disappear in a cloud of sulfuric smoke, which would be the only way your ignominy might dissipate or might begin to be atoned for, but, as we both know, you are in no danger of such an implosion, given the impossibly stringent conditions needed for you to be in danger of it.

Sincerely, Jim McCulloch

Friday cat blogging

Grendel settling in for a nap. Like our President, he needs his rest.

Grendel settling in for a nap

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Where is the National Guard? Where is the Army? Where is FEMA?

Well, the Army and National Guard seem to be in Iraq. A few guardsmen--too few, so far--have made their way into New Orleans. And FEMA seems to be completely failing to do its job. People who have gone to the Superdome, as they were told to do, or who have been rescued and have been taken there, are dying of dehydration inside the dome, and outside on the sidewalk. And nobody seems to be doing much about it.

And what does Michael Brown, head of FEMA have to say about this situation? Brown, when asked by Wolf Blitzer what could have been done differently--the thrust of the question was actually what could FEMA have done differently--replied that what should have been done differently is that the people should have known better than to not leave before the storm. He said--with a hint of Republican puzzlement in his voice--that he didn't know why some residents chose not to leave, but that they should have left.

I heard him say it. Minutes ago, on CNN.

You'd think at some point I'd stop being astonished by what words can come out of a Republican politico's mouth.