Thursday, December 29, 2005

Butterflies in winter, and other wonders of nature

At McKinney Falls State Park the day was beautiful. Here is a typical upland landscape at McKinney Falls, with a pencil cactus at the left, scrub cedar elms here and there, lots of prickly pear cactus, and lots of blue sky.

The fact that no birds were visible, or scarcely any, hardly mattered. I did get one photo of a mockingbird which was in the process of swallowing a bug.

I don't know if the bug was a butterfly, but today was the 29th of December, and I am still seeing butterflies. The most common were small sulphurs, but I got a photo of a variegated fritillary and (once again) a buckeye.

Variegated fritillary (Euptoieta claudia)

Buckeye (Junonia coenia)

And here is one of the largest mustang grapevines I have ever seen, nearly a foot in diameter at the base. Maybe in wetter climates wild grapevines this size might be common, but around here this is a monster. I wonder how old it is?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Bluff Springs store

I think it was about 1978 that my father-in-law Tom Sutherland bought a country store outside of Austin. It was near his house. I drive by it several times a week. I don’t know why I thought about it when I drove by today. Maybe because the area seems quiet and empty during the holidays, so it’s easier to see and hear the previous inhabitants. My father-in-law’s store is no longer a store; somebody lives there now. It’s a small place--almost too small to be lived in.

For some reason Tom--my father-in-law--had imagined the store as a kind of office where he could sit behind the counter and drink scotch and smoke cigars while he set about translating the great Gaucho epic Martin Fierro--a project he never finished--undisturbed by wife and young children at all, and by customers but little. He had retired from his job as an English professor.

As soon as he got the store, however, he was overtaken by the desire to make money from it. One Saturday morning he had gone to a downtown flea market, where elderly people had little stalls overflowing with knick-knacks, garage sale junk, and he decided to buy an entire stall, all its goods, and move it out to his new business. He told this old lady he wished to buy her out. She said make an offer. They settled on a price, maybe a thousand dollars, I don’t remember now, and he was the new owner of a ton and a half of old flat-irons, bedsteads, Readers Digest Condensed Books, lamps, porcelain dolls, candlesticks, hair rollers, costume jewelry, stamp collections, boxes of polished rocks, coffee mugs with sayings on them, old gilt-framed faded prints of dramatic paintings of St. Mark's Piazza, ornate tins full of ornate buttons, stacks of glass saucers no two alike, several office swivel chairs with the vinyl cracked and degraded ill-smelling granulating spongy foam coming out, a selection of used Bibles, and much more.

Tom put all of it into the store that would fit alongside the troublesome cooler and the canned goods and the rack with potato chips and put the rest in the tack room of his stable where he kept a mare no one could ride and a pony which bit children.

He had a new family which consisted of seven people besides himself. He was living in a big chaotic house 200 yards across Onion creek from his store, with his second wife and her three children from another marriage and her three young children that he had sired in his old age, much to the dismay of six of his seven original daughters, my wife being the undismayed exception.

This second wife was the widow of one of Tom's drinking buddies, a colorful character himself. She was 30 years younger than Tom, and bore him three children pretty quick. It would be fair to say that their relationship was tumultuous. Disorderly. They both tended towards impulsiveness.

But Tom liked the disorder of a house with six children. He was not the sort to grow old gracefully. His house, and despite his original intentions, his store, were noisy and exciting, and all his life Tom liked noise and excitement, which is possibly why he never finished writing a book.

Both house and store were not so far from Austin's only volcano, a smooth and grassy basalt knoll called Pilot Knob about two hundred feet high, extinct since the late Cretaceous. Some pretty bad characters lived out there in those days. One was murdered a mile or so away from the Bluff Springs store and then beheaded by unknown assassins during the bucolic days of the homegrown dope trade in Austin before all of it but the manufacture and sale of methamphetamine was outsourced south of the border in an early wave of globalization. I think I mentioned this once in an earlier post. The murder victim owned some monkeys that got loose, and neighbors discovered the murder when they saw the monkeys playing with the decayed head.

This was an atmosphere my father-in-law must have felt to be inspiring for his translation project. But he being old and moreover tending to enjoy being distracted, I doubt if he got more than a chapter into it. I don’t think anyone knows where the manuscript went. It’s not like Martin Fierro has never been translated into English, though.

But to get back to his business, it failed for the simple reason that he had a catastrophic personality quirk for a person setting up in a retail trade. It was this: whenever anyone wanted to buy any of his used stuff, he felt that by virtue of the fact of someone wanting it, it must be valuable, and that, if it was valuable, the would-be buyer was trying to pull a fast one and get it too cheaply. It would be best, therefore, to hold onto it.

So he always refused to sell things that people wanted to buy. Except for things like potato chips and candy and drinks the cooler did not quite keep cool enough. Not only did this no-I-won’t-sell-it-to-you trait ruin his career as a storekeeper, it ruined at least two giant garage sales my wife and two of his other daughters arranged to save him from being overwhelmed in his own house by stuff he accumulated and never let go of.

It was very paradoxical. My wife observed it at the garage sales. The higher the offers went, the more adamant he became in rejecting offers to purchase. My wife and her sisters were almost in tears with rage when he refused an offer of maybe a hundred dollars—this was many years ago—for two non-running rusting automobiles, surrounded by weeds, in his back yard. His daughters did manage to sell off a small amount of household junk without his noticing while he was occupied bargaining with some of the more persistent (and perplexed) would-be buyers of other items.

But all-in-all the garage sales were failures, like his store. Failures from an economic standpoint, that is. From his point of view, which I can understand better now, none of it was probably a failure at all, even though his business was finally closed down for good by the health department because of the cooler. As far as I could tell he enjoyed every minute of it.

Sometimes I think of knocking on the guy's door who lives there now and telling him a little of the history of the place. And then I think, "nah." So here it is in my blog instead.

Monday, December 19, 2005

News from the front

The demands of the War on Christmas will probably keep me from posting much until about 5 days after the winter solstice.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Walk in the woods

No birds were available to watch on today's walk in Searight Park in Austin, so I watched lichens and juniper stumps instead.

Lichens are complex organism, associations of fungal and algal species. I have no hope of identifying this lichen, common on the branches of various species of tree in the park.

Another view

Juniper stump forms.

Another juniper skeleton

Oak and limestone--woodland trail in Searight Park

Across the fence from Searight Park, this soon-to-be built suburban sprawl housing development will complete the transformation of the park into a 344 acre biological island now engulfed by an expanding city. Trying to be a glass half full kind of person, I remind myself to be happy for the 344 acres.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

What Machiavelli didn't realize

George Bush shares with Kim Jong-il the distinction of being one of the two important heads of state in the world who is either deranged or whose handlers have managed to created a usefully universal belief in the head-of-state's madness, and in Bush's case, not only madness, but idiocy.

If it is all Machiavellian smoke and mirrors, it would be an opposite instance of it than with Ronald Reagan, who actually was out of his mind, but whose residual acting skills enabled the White House junta to project the image of a President who was not only sane, but cogent.

But why would it be useful to whoever the present rulers of our country are to project the image of a West Wing lunatic who is out of control, unpredictable, willful, stupid, and pig-ignorant to boot, plagued with inopportune facial tics during speeches, contemptuous of the law and who believes, with the decisive insight of a fraternity president who has just discovered that the frathouse lease prohibits parties on weeknights past 2:00 am, that the constitution is just a goddamn piece of paper?

Well, the answer to that should be obvious enough. Presidential lunacy, whether real or simulated, has been remarkably successful in turning the dreams of a variety of Republican imperial, plutocratic, and theocratic interests into the nightmarish and sordid reality they wished for, and which they hope to make permanent, such that an astonished and horrified world now sees the threat of a runaway train America plunging the world it is hauling behind it into an abyss of permanent religious war and ecological devastation, perhaps as a cover for the jihad of economic globalism and Christian Dominionism, whose climactic end its various authors believe either they will escape thru floating up to heaven like escaped birthday balloons as the world goes up like Falluga in white phosphorous and napalm, or that by virtue of wealth and hidden vice-presidential-like bunkers they will be able to come out ahead after it is all over even richer, and without angry crowds throwing rocks at them.

But this is insane, you might protest. Well, yeah.

Now I prefer, just on the basis of Occam's Razor, the view that the President actually is mad, rather than that he is feigning madness. And even if he were feigning madness, the end of the line, which is now in full view before us, is clearly a place only a madman would want to go, so it would follow that if the president is not deranged, then his handlers are.

In either case, the country is in trouble. Not much of an insight, but one each and every one of us, daily being conditioned to accept madness as normal, needs to remind ourselves of, maybe every morning as we get out of bed. "Note for today: buy toothpaste, pay the phone bill, and--don't forget--remember that the President and all his people are crazy." Crazy and dangerous. A madman who believes he is Napoleon ceases to be harmless when he has an army.

In these disordered times it's useful to have a connection to reality.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Household notes:

Showing 23 year old daughter some useful stuff to know. She has a jar of olives she can't open. I tell her to tap on it. She says "what?"

Tap on it.

So I decide to show her. No strength required. Young men, concerned about looking foolish trying vainly to open stuck lids, would need to know this, too, but none are around.

So, I tell her find a heavy spoon or such like object, and tap on the edge of the lid--in the right direction, of course--like this.

Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap...

splash a cascade of olive-flavored vinagar spills out of the jar which I am holding over the open drawer the spoon came out of.

Eve laughs.

The drawer needed cleaning anyway.

Friday cat blogging

Gray watching a grackle through the window.

Gray wants to go out

The grackle

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Small birds through the window, again

One of the reasons birds have interested me for so long--I have been a birdwatcher for about 40 years--is not that they can fly, but that they manifest a very alert and active consciousness (unlike, say, most reptiles), and as far as I can tell, one very alien to our own.

Or then again maybe not. The movie Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, which I saw a few months ago, very much anthropomorphized the birds--but it seemed to work. You believed, or at least I believed, that the parrots were kind of like humans, but with wings and a fear of hawks.

I haven't seen the penguin movie.

But when I watch the small birds eating the sunflower seeds I put out, or the grackles and crows of the neighborhood, or the whitewing and mourning doves who seem to make up for a certain avian dimwittedness with exceptional speed of flight, they all seem like they must be profoundly different from us in the way they look at the world.

But of course I really can't know.

So when I got this camera that has a 12x telephoto, I found myself taking pictures and enlarging them, when I can, so that I see the birds much as another bird the same size would see them. Often that means pushing the enlargement past the usable resolution. These photos suffer from that. But on the other hand, if you look at them full size, they give a a view of the bird from a perspective I find interesting, maybe as another wren, or titmouse, or cardinal might see them.

I find it strange. And a little unsettling.

Cardinals are the bullies of my little feeding platform, maybe because they are bigger than any of the other birds drawn to the birdseed I put out. This one is eating a sunflower seed.

Titmice, on the other hand are shy and arboreal, reluctant to drop down to ground level. But they are sly and quick, and they seem to have a plan before they make their move. This tufted titmouse is gonna drop, grab a sunflower seed, and then it will be outa there, back up in the high branches of the pecan tree.

Carolina wrens get down on the ground and down in the leaves and low branches. They are not intimidated by other birds, and will occasionally drive away sparrows if they sparrows get too close. The feed by themselves, at least at this time of year.

(click to enlarge)

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Sympathy for the Devil--just once--would be great

War on Christmas? Oh, man, give me a break. Sometimes it's just astonishing how preposterous Republican talking points are. They don't even bother to remove the sneer. You wonder just how bottomless Karl Rove's supply of bogus issues is. You can't get any more cynical than to claim that Christmas is being squelched here in America by liberal political-correctness police.

OK, take Christmas music. Heard any music celebrating Christmas lately? Unless you have been confined to your house since Thanksgiving, the answer is yes. I walked out of a Border's bookstore the other day without buying the book I was looking at because I could not bear to listen to hear Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas one more time. (Alas, I am unable to walk out of my local supermarket for the same reason, unless I am prepared to go without food until December 26.) My walking out had _nothing_ to do with my being a liberal. Now I am not a particularly prescriptive person about public music, though I do wish businesses did not think that they have a duty to entertain me, and possibly cajole me to buy stuff, by playing in-store music which, if played to prisoners in Guantanamo against their will, would be one more violation of the Geneva Conventions. I try to tune it out. But sometimes you just can't.

The right-wing Christian view of my wish to not hear music I don't like in public places is that it abridges _their_ rights. What? Hello? This is a peculiar view, to put it mildly--kind of like someone saying that my failure to remove my face from the path followed by their fist is an abridgment of their right to perform karate blows in the air.

I am a very liberal person. No doubt about it. So I ask myself if I would suppress Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas being played in commercial contexts, if I had to power--like if I were dictator, or your normal dictator-like god. My honest answer is no. I might demand equal time on the public airwaves for non-christian classics like, say, Sympathy for the Devil, but if a storeowner wants to drive me out of his place of business with his choice of music, as far as I am concerned that's his business. Maybe I am wrong, but I think most liberals feel the same way.

And insofar as Christmas has evolved into a healthy winter vacation for a lot of people who would otherwise not get time off from work, I think that's great. Even if they are Hindus or Wiccans.

Certainly, nobody has ever kept a politician running for reelection from saying Merry Christmas to friends, neighbors, and constituents. Who would even try? Personally, I don't even care if they send out Christmas cards using taxpayer money--I am a lot more offended by members of Congress using tax money to promote the plunder of the Arctic wildlife refuge or the Front Range via their newsletters, than I am by my senators wishing me merry christmas paid for out of their franking-privilege budget. Most liberals, I should hope, even the most avidly secular, have enough of a perspective about what's important in the world to share this priority of lesser versus greater evils.

So nobody is suppressing Christmas.

What does this even mean? And who even believes it?

Each and every time a new Republican talking point makes its astonishing appearance, I tell myself that they can't get any more absurd and and contemptuous of the intelligence of the public than this. And I am always wrong.

Before midnight meditation

The following is from a dharma hall discourse of Eihei Dogen Zenji in the mid 13th century. Dogen begins by quoting a saying by Dongshan Shouchu, an earlier Chinese Zen teacher.
"Atop Mount Wutai, the clouds are making steamed rice; below the steps of the dharma hall, a dog pisses in the direction of heaven. At the top of the flagpole, dumplings are cooking; three monkeys are sorting coins in the night."

Dogen then remarks:
If you can look at this and clearly understand it, you are like the black dragon with the pearl who can create clouds and rain wherever it goes. Otherwise, if it is not like this, you are still delighted by the lotus in the cold of December. Study this.

Now this is completely mystifying to those of us still delighted by the lotus in the cold of December.

It may or may not help much to know that Chinese dragons, the great dragons anyway, had custody of wisdom itself in the form of a pearl in their throats or under their chins. Black dragons were less auspicious than others, and were associated with difficulty, cold, the north, and deep water. The lotus is a symbol of the Buddha and his awakening; he is always depicted, when seated, on a lotus throne. And guessing, I'd say that a lotus in December, in Japan at least (and Eihei Dogen had founded a temple in a rather snowy part of Japan) is in danger of freezing.

Dogen seems to be saying, if nothing else, that admiring wisdom doesn't make you wise. That's not very goddamn helpful, which is typical of Zen. If December in Japan means it is late in the game, then we might have a reference to the historical Buddha's last words, which can be paraphrased as "life is short, seek salvation with diligence."

The steamed rice and the monkeys sorting coins and the dog lifting his leg on the temple steps may be referential of some folktales known to Chinese monks but not to us, but I suspect any such tales, if they existed, are a false clue.

Dogen is one of the great teachers of the Soto Zen tradition. In Soto Zen, you sit facing a wall. I am about to go do that. While sitting facing the wall, you are not supposed to think of Dogen's dharma talks, or dragons, or an elephant, or solutions to koans, or what you are going to do tomorrow, but one does think of one or more of those things, and the recommended course is that you recursively follow that down to a bitter end, or an ecstatic one, or else you fall asleep. Falling asleep is a failing. Or, alternatively, when you think of a dragon you just let it go, but that's very hard to do.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Birds outside the window

Sunday backyard birds:

Female house sparrow, attentive to photographer

Female white crowned sparrow and Hotei

Male white crowned sparrow in mid-hop

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Mutations of racism

I didn't join in blog-against-racism day, mainly because I didn't feel I had anything to say that others would not say more usefully. But since last week I have been thinking about some changes in racism I have seen in my lifetime.

In the fall of 1960, I was part of a group of University of Texas students who were trying to integrate a couple of movie theaters right off the campus. Our campaign lasted a year, and was successful. We felt good about that.

The good feeling began to evaporate, though. By 1964 when I graduated, John Kennedy had been assassinated, Medgar Evers had been assassinated, Bull Connor had turned dogs and firehoses on civil rights demonstrators, four young black children had been blown up in a church in Birmingham, and in the summer of 1964 three civil rights workers about my age were murdered in Mississippi. The murder of Martin Luther King was still to come, as was what seemed at the time (and still does) to be the fairly systematic murder of black militants all over the country by the police in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

But in the summer of 1964, I made a visit to my parents, who on account of my father's work had moved to a small town called Laplace in Louisiana, upriver from New Orleans. I read a little about the place before I went there. It was where the largest slave revolt in American history started, in 1811. About 500 poorly armed slaves marched down the river road from Laplace toward New Orleans, but were intercepted by troops, and upwards of 100 of the rebels were killed in battle or later executed. No one knows why they were going to New Orleans, but given the percentage of black people in the population at the time, possibly they were hoping to establish a black republic modeled after Haiti.

I remember asking a few (white) people in Laplace what they thought about this facet of their history, and none of them had ever heard of it. But I did get the feeling that some of them may have approved of the killings of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, which happened while I was in Laplace. They didn't outright say that, of course, but they assumed that since I was white, and a Texan, that they could at least share with me their aversion to outsiders coming down into our South and making trouble.

My parents' house backed up to a railroad track. African-Americans lived on the other side of the tracks. I could walk down the railroad tracks to go birdwatching, which had recently become a hobby, but black youths--at least older ones-- were suspect if they walked on the tracks. It was thought they might be "looking into" white people's yards. And this was thought to be a very bad thing.

That all seems very distant now. Things are much improved. Aren't they?

I am pretty sure a young black male could walk down the tracks there nowadays without trouble. But cultural presuppositions, i.e., prejudices, might still be in play. I am confidant that, given the semi-rural nature of the area, no one today would be at all troubled by me walking down the tracks carrying binoculars, any more than they were then. People would far more likely assume that I was a bird-watcher than a peeping Tom. Would a black man be given the same latitude? I'd guess there would still be trouble, based on no more than this: "who ever heard of a black bird-watcher?"

Still, by and large, open expressions of prejudice have diminished by light-years since the 1960s. Is this good? Well, yes. But...

The interesting thing about all of these memories of my own past is that for all of the cultural differences between then and now, there was in those days a nation-wide sensibility that defined extremism in a very different way than we do now. And extremism was not a good thing. Extremism is what sank Goldwater, after all.

Everyone in 1964, even the people who were unapologetic bigots, accepted that openly expressed racial prejudice was an extreme position. What I am trying to say is--and I think this is true, or at least it seems true to what I remember--that there were more people then, than now, who both thought of themselves as extremist and who were willing to be so, openly. Something has changed, but it may not all be for the good. The outright vocal bigots are still around, fewer in number-- you can still run into them, in the south, not very often, the unreconstructed neo-confederate types. But they are dying out.

What has replaced them, nationwide, troubles me. It's a sort of malicious indifference that has permeated and corrupted the core of an entire political party. I mean--think of it, we all saw it--an entire nation can watch a mostly black city be destroyed, and at a good portion of this country doesn't much give a rat's ass, and prefers to forget about it. People chew gum and watch on TV as other people drown, and the watchers occasionally, idly, think of reasons that the victims are to blame. This is not considered racism, and certainly not extremist. Not outre. Not unusual. It's near the middle of the American road. That's amazing. You realize how close to the surface genocide is.

The difference I am trying to get at is this: the killers of four black children knew they had committed a horrific crime, as we see by the fact that they hid themselves, and lied about it. The gum-chewers don't hide, and don't bother to lie, and don't care what the death toll was. Nor do they attempt to justify it on the basis of preserving our way of life, as open bigots used to, in defending the crimes of their fellows.

And it's worth noting that the head gum-chewer is our president. (Actually, in fairness, as far as I know he does not chew gum, at least not while making speeches. But the indifference is something he can't hide, even when his smirk attempts to be a smile, even as he he waves to the imaginary crowd and steps smartly toward his waiting helicopter.)

Friday, December 09, 2005

Friday bird blogging

While the cats sleep indoors, a white crowned sparrow and 2 house sparrows feast on sunflower seeds and cracked corn

until a cardinal arrives

A Carolina wren looks for food at Quan Yin's feet

Close-up of the Carolina wren

Friday cat blogging

On a cold day, the cats are inside staying warm.

Here's Gray

and here's Grendel

Harold Pinter

Today I watched Harold Pinter's Nobel acceptance speech. I found it moving. He was hoarse, obviously ill, seated in a wheelchair, wearing dark clothing, seated in a darkened room. A dramatist. The link will take you to a complete video file, which may take several tries because of traffic right now. I am posting here some (long) excerpts of the text. It was a long speech. I found myself mesmerized, and not pleasantly so, given the subject.

The Nobel Foundation has given permission for complete or partial reprinting of the text in newspapers, which I take to include blogs, if copyright notice is given as follows: © THE NOBEL FOUNDATION 2005

He prefaced the following with some remarks on the nature of truth in drama. Then he launched into this:

Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

As every single person here knows, the justification for the invasion of Iraq was that Saddam Hussein possessed a highly dangerous body of weapons of mass destruction, some of which could be fired in 45 minutes, bringing about appalling devastation. We were assured that was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq had a relationship with Al Quaeda and shared responsibility for the atrocity in New York of September 11th 2001. We were assured that this was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq threatened the security of the world. We were assured it was true. It was not true.

The truth is something entirely different. The truth is to do with how the United States understands its role in the world and how it chooses to embody it.


Although constrained, to a certain extent, by the existence of the Soviet Union, the United States' actions throughout the world made it clear that it had concluded it had carte blanche to do what it liked.

Direct invasion of a sovereign state has never in fact been America's favoured method. In the main, it has preferred what it has described as 'low intensity conflict'. Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people die but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It means that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom. When the populace has been subdued – or beaten to death – the same thing – and your own friends, the military and the great corporations, sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera and say that democracy has prevailed. This was a commonplace in US foreign policy in the years to which I refer.

The tragedy of Nicaragua was a highly significant case. I choose to offer it here as a potent example of America's view of its role in the world, both then and now.

I was present at a meeting at the US embassy in London in the late 1980s.

The United States Congress was about to decide whether to give more money to the Contras in their campaign against the state of Nicaragua. I was a member of a delegation speaking on behalf of Nicaragua but the most important member of this delegation was a Father John Metcalf. The leader of the US body was Raymond Seitz (then number two to the ambassador, later ambassador himself). Father Metcalf said: 'Sir, I am in charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua. My parishioners built a school, a health centre, a cultural centre. We have lived in peace. A few months ago a Contra force attacked the parish. They destroyed everything: the school, the health centre, the cultural centre. They raped nurses and teachers, slaughtered doctors, in the most brutal manner. They behaved like savages. Please demand that the US government withdraw its support from this shocking terrorist activity.'

Raymond Seitz had a very good reputation as a rational, responsible and highly sophisticated man. He was greatly respected in diplomatic circles. He listened, paused and then spoke with some gravity. 'Father,' he said, 'let me tell you something. In war, innocent people always suffer.' There was a frozen silence. We stared at him. He did not flinch.

Innocent people, indeed, always suffer.


The United States supported the brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua for over 40 years. The Nicaraguan people, led by the Sandinistas, overthrew this regime in 1979, a breathtaking popular revolution.

The Sandinistas weren't perfect. They possessed their fair share of arrogance and their political philosophy contained a number of contradictory elements. But they were intelligent, rational and civilised. They set out to establish a stable, decent, pluralistic society. The death penalty was abolished. Hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken peasants were brought back from the dead. Over 100,000 families were given title to land. Two thousand schools were built. A quite remarkable literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in the country to less than one seventh. Free education was established and a free health service. Infant mortality was reduced by a third. Polio was eradicated.

The United States denounced these achievements as Marxist/Leninist subversion. In the view of the US government, a dangerous example was being set. If Nicaragua was allowed to establish basic norms of social and economic justice, if it was allowed to raise the standards of health care and education and achieve social unity and national self respect, neighbouring countries would ask the same questions and do the same things. There was of course at the time fierce resistance to the status quo in El Salvador.

I spoke earlier about 'a tapestry of lies' which surrounds us. President Reagan commonly described Nicaragua as a 'totalitarian dungeon'. This was taken generally by the media, and certainly by the British government, as accurate and fair comment. But there was in fact no record of death squads under the Sandinista government. There was no record of torture. There was no record of systematic or official military brutality. No priests were ever murdered in Nicaragua. There were in fact three priests in the government, two Jesuits and a Maryknoll missionary. The totalitarian dungeons were actually next door, in El Salvador and Guatemala. The United States had brought down the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954 and it is estimated that over 200,000 people had been victims of successive military dictatorships.

Six of the most distinguished Jesuits in the world were viciously murdered at the Central American University in San Salvador in 1989 by a battalion of the Alcatl regiment trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. That extremely brave man Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass. It is estimated that 75,000 people died. Why were they killed? They were killed because they believed a better life was possible and should be achieved. That belief immediately qualified them as communists. They died because they dared to question the status quo, the endless plateau of poverty, disease, degradation and oppression, which had been their birthright.

The United States finally brought down the Sandinista government. It took some years and considerable resistance but relentless economic persecution and 30,000 dead finally undermined the spirit of the Nicaraguan people. They were exhausted and poverty stricken once again. The casinos moved back into the country. Free health and free education were over. Big business returned with a vengeance. 'Democracy' had prevailed.

But this 'policy' was by no means restricted to Central America. It was conducted throughout the world. It was never-ending. And it is as if it never happened.

The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.

Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn't know it.

It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.

I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self love. It's a winner. Listen to all American presidents on television say the words, 'the American people', as in the sentence, 'I say to the American people it is time to pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I ask the American people to trust their president in the action he is about to take on behalf of the American people.'

It's a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words 'the American people' provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance.

The United States no longer bothers about low intensity conflict. It no longer sees any point in being reticent or even devious. It puts its cards on the table without fear or favour. It quite simply doesn't give a damn about the United Nations, international law or critical dissent, which it regards as impotent and irrelevant.

Look at Guantanamo Bay. Hundreds of people detained without charge for over three years, with no legal representation or due process, technically detained forever. This totally illegitimate structure is maintained in defiance of the Geneva Convention. It is not only tolerated but hardly thought about by what's called the 'international community'. This criminal outrage is being committed by a country, which declares itself to be 'the leader of the free world'. Do we think about the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay? What does the media say about them? They pop up occasionally – a small item on page six. They have been consigned to a no man's land from which indeed they may never return. At present many are on hunger strike, being force-fed, including British residents. No niceties in these force-feeding procedures. No sedative or anaesthetic. Just a tube stuck up your nose and into your throat. You vomit blood. This is torture. What has the British Foreign Secretary said about this? Nothing. What has the British Prime Minister said about this? Nothing. Why not? Because the United States has said: to criticise our conduct in Guantanamo Bay constitutes an unfriendly act. You're either with us or against us. So Blair shuts up.

The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law. The invasion was an arbitrary military action inspired by a series of lies upon lies and gross manipulation of the media and therefore of the public; an act intended to consolidate American military and economic control of the Middle East masquerading – as a last resort – all other justifications having failed to justify themselves – as liberation. A formidable assertion of military force responsible for the death and mutilation of thousands and thousands of innocent people.

We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation and death to the Iraqi people and call it 'bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East'.

How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal? One hundred thousand? More than enough, I would have thought. Therefore it is just that Bush and Blair be arraigned before the International Criminal Court of Justice. But Bush has been clever. He has not ratified the International Criminal Court of Justice. Therefore if any American soldier or for that matter politician finds himself in the dock Bush has warned that he will send in the marines. But Tony Blair has ratified the Court and is therefore available for prosecution. We can let the Court have his address if they're interested. It is Number 10, Downing Street, London.

Death in this context is irrelevant. Both Bush and Blair place death well away on the back burner. At least 100,000 Iraqis were killed by American bombs and missiles before the Iraq insurgency began. These people are of no moment. Their deaths don't exist. They are blank. They are not even recorded as being dead. 'We don't do body counts,' said the American general Tommy Franks.

The 2,000 American dead are an embarrassment. They are transported to their graves in the dark. Funerals are unobtrusive, out of harm's way. The mutilated rot in their beds, some for the rest of their lives. So the dead and the mutilated both rot, in different kinds of graves.

He ended with a poem he wrote whose subject was death, and then returned to the subject he began with: truth.

I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us – the dignity of man.

--Harold Pinter

I was going to select only a few parts of his speech for those who did not have time or desire to listen to or read the original, but I found it impossible to make short excerpts without mutilating the flow of his thought. Sorry. I encourage you to listen to the speech itself.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Walk up Barton Creek

These photos, taken a couple of days ago, document what for practical purposes may have been the last day of autumn in Austin this year. Yesterday it got cold and last night, to the dismay of many of us, we had a minor ice storm. Quarter inch of ice on the streets. Twenty four degrees last night, and the same predicted tonight. That's cold for Austin. Minnesota readers should realize we neither know how to dress for such weather, or drive in it, so it is a big deal for us.

Anyway, the day before the cold weather was very nice, as you may be able to see in these pictures. So I took a walk up Barton Creek, which at the moment is dry.

This is what it looks like. Normally the creek will have water in it at this time of year.

A Barton Creek fox squirrel

The trail along the cliffside

Here is a close up of a cliffside maidenhair fern

A roughleaf dogwood, still with fall coloring

Graffiti under a bridge over the creek--keeping Austin weird

Dead tree against the sky

That was then, this is now

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

It's not torture, it's enhanced interrogation

Our government having redefined as "permissible" certain practices considered to be torture under international law, these practices are thus...not torture. Why? Because we say so. What's odd about the previous sentence? Apparently, nothing is odd about it at all, in a country whose president says we don't torture but under whose enhanced but definitionally mild interrogation techniques an alarming number of prisoners have breathed their last.

Explicitly included in the redefined-as-not-torture practices are waterboarding, which as everyone now knows is immersing the victim's head in water long enough to convince him that he is going to be drowned, placing the victim's body in "stressful" physical positions (how does this differ from putting someone on the rack in a medieval dungeon, one wonders?) and sleep deprivation. Presumably other practices forbidden by the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture, which we are signatory to, are also redefined as not-torture.

Practices considered to be torture in a simpler time, such as beating, burning, boiling, subjecting to dog attack, dislocating limbs, breaking bones, rape, severe electrical shock, etc, are, presumably, still considered beyond the pale--except that representatives of our government have been caught doing all these things to our captives, other than boiling them. For that, we must outsource to our sometime friends in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, who are rumored to do boiling. (But we can't trust rumors, unless they are documented with photos or videotape, like the still unreleased extra-gruesome Abu Ghraib stuff, which the Defense Department considers to be classified. Keeping them secret, according to the Defense Department, is crucial to national security.)

This leads me to the subject of rendition, which is forbidden by the quaint Geneva Conventions that do not apply to us in the post-quaint era of prisoner interrogation, a non-applicabililty that was fortuitously discovered in the legal offices of the White House itself by the man who is now the Attorney General.

Rendition, often carried out in such a way as to resemble kidnapping (from which it can be distinguished by its having been defined by our Secretary of State as "not kidnapping"), raises an interesting question.

That question is, why do we do "renditions"? (Where did this bizarre term come from, anyway? Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's? Render unto Uzbekistan whoever Caesar wants boiled?)

It seems to me that if we have all these post-quaint, formerly forbidden practices at our disposal, then the governments we turn our prisoners over to must have some sterner interrogation procedures still available to them.

It follows rather logically, that if we ourselves have edged over into what used to be torture in our now-permitted interrogation practices, then the interrogation practices we turn the difficult prisoners over to must be, well, beyond our expanded zone of the permissible, i.e., still torture. Right? Otherwise, what conceivable reason could we have for turning over our captives to Egypt or Jordan for interrogation? Surely it must be that these governments go even further than we are prepared to go, in exploring innovative interrogation techniques. And since we have explored them right up to a newly defined edge of torture, beyond that must be clearly in the realm of non-deniability, torture-wise.

And we do go pretty far ourselves. Some 86 prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan are known to have died under our enhanced interrogation. Twenty six of these fatalities are being "investigated" (ha, what a laugh! except it's not funny) as homicides. Presumably those other 60 were accidental deaths.

But if we have accidentally interrogated 60 prisoners to death, then our not-torture must be pretty strong stuff. (Accidentally interrogated to death! How long will it take Secretary Rice to tell us that accidental interrogation-to-death is unfortunate but necessary in the War on Terror, permissible under revised guidelines?)

One prisoner at Abu Ghraib, who was allegedly interrogated by the CIA, had several ribs broken and was then strung up so he could not breath. So he accidentally died.

Given the frequency of such accidents, I don't really much want to think about what the Egyptians and the Jordanians and the hooded individuals employed in officially nonexistent CIA prisons around the globe do while questioning their captives. Or I should say, _our_ captives, on loan for questioning to these friendly democracies (or to our own officially non-existent prison facilities in places we refuse to divulge.)

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Bush's Feaver pitch

The current speech writer for our so-called president, at least for his Iraq push-back (against a doubting public, not, or at least not with any success that anyone can see, against the insurgents) is a political scientist named Peter Feaver who believes that the public will support a war with very high American casualties if they, the public, believe we are going to win the war. Whatever win means. There's the rub, or, from the point of view of the Bush administration, the propaganda opportunity.

Mr. Feaver has left academia to bring his theories to a venue they deserve, the moral tar-pit of the White House.

Mr. Feaver has two basic beliefs about the public's willingness to support a war, one of which he finds it convenient to disregard. These are: the public will support a war, despite high casualties, if the public believes it to be a worthy cause, and if the public believes our side will win. In Feaver's own words, "Our core argument is that the public's tolerance for the human costs of war is primarily shaped by the intersection of two crucial attitudes: beliefs about the rightness or wrongness of the war in the first place, and beliefs about the war's likely success."

The worthy cause proviso is the one Mr. Feaver has discarded to further his speech-writing career.

Bush, who according to the Washington Post, was reading Mr. Feaver's words in his recent speech, is now touting his certainty that we will, god bless my soul, win in Iraq. Just like we would have done in Vietnam, if the public had not chickened out.

Let's give Mr. Feaver the benefit of the doubt, here. But in doing so we should look at both parts of Mr. Feaver's theory, or what was formerly his theory before only the second half of it was bought, along with Mr. Feaver's services, by the White House. The part about it being a worthy cause bears looking at. I think the public has started to do that. Indeed, it's hard to imagine the public suddenly ceasing to be aware that the WMD claim--the moral basis of our war--was bogus.

In fact the now-inoperative WMD claim seems to have been implicit in a survey Feaver himself did not too long ago, with a colleague named Christopher Gelpi. Here are the questions asked of 3 groups of people in the survey.

When American troops are sent overseas, there are almost always casualties. For instance, 43 Americans were killed in Somalia, 383 in the Gulf War, roughly 54,000 in Korea, roughly 58,000 in Vietnam and roughly 400,000 in World War II. Imagine for a moment that a President decided to send military troops on one of the following missions. In your opinion, what would be the highest number of American military deaths that would be acceptable to achieve this goal?

A) To stabilize a democratic government in Congo__________.*

B) To prevent Iraq from obtaining weapons of mass destruction__________.

C) To defend Taiwan against invasion by China__________.

Military Mission-- Military Elite / Civilian Elite / Mass Public

Congo-- 284 / 484 / 6,861

Iraq-- 6,016 / 19,045 / 29,853

Taiwan-- 17,425 / 17,554 / 20,172

* The survey did not specify the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) or the Republic of Congo

Now there are several things to note about this survey, besides the fact that it's racist (or, more accurately, it reveals without comment the racism of the public) and conceptually crazy. First is that the "worthy cause" the survey itself specifies for Iraq is preventing Iraq from obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

OK. Well, scratch that, since everyone in America now knows that was not the real reason we went to war. But given that Mr. Feaver believes, at least for the purposes of his current employment, that "victory" is the key, rather than the worthiness of the cause, what we have to do is substitute another basis for victory, and do it in retrospect, and hopes that the public forgets about the worthiness of the cause in its raw enthusiasm for our future triumph.

So that's what the White House is doing, under the tutelage of Mr. Feaver's political scientism.

Now it would seem like a lost cause, given the continued bad news from Iraq. But obviously, it is less a lost cause than convincing the public that Iraq had WMDs, given that no one in the known universe now believes that. A tough row to hoe is better than an impossible row to hoe is, I suppose, the thinking.

So the sleight of hand will have to be to redefine why we are there, which can be done on a day-by-day basis by someone like Mr. Rumsfeld, who is very flexible in his assessments of reality (and there are many others who would do just as well, like Senator Lieberman, rumored to be Rumsfeld's possible nonpartisan replacement), and then to claim we are making progress on today's basis for war.

And, if we are making "progress," we can have up to 29,853 American troops killed without the public turning against the war.

And I have a bridge to sell you. Cheap. Cheaper than that.

And to get back to the flaws in Feaver and Gelpi's survey, and its underlying theory, it seems to ignore the question of how many casualties the other side is willing to undergo, perhaps based on their own perception of the justice of their own cause. You might think that's where we went off the rails in Vietnam. And look at the Taiwan business--does anyone really think the Chinese would blink at taking a lot more casualties than we would in a confrontation about Taiwan?

What are these people thinking? I am not so much condemning the public, who are after all being asked to pull a number out of the air, as I am the pollsters, who ought to realize just how stupid, not to mention morally reprehensible, the very terms of the question are.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Saturday along Austin's Town Lake

Saturday was sunny and warm, a nice day for a walk along what we call Town Lake, which is a formed by a dam on the (Texas) Colorado River at the lower end of town. We have walking and biking trails for several miles along the bank.

Here a great egret in the willows is craning its neck to see what I am up to

A coot near the bank is also trying to see what I am up to

A lesser scaup farther out in the water

Here we have a flotilla of double crested cormorants and a ring-billed gull

And here is a flotilla of scullers getting organized

The scullers, going away

(Click on images for larger view)

Friday, December 02, 2005

Invasion of the body-snatchers

I was going to write something about the moral disintegration of the Republican Party, the astonishing spectacle of the party of Lincoln becoming, in the past 40 years, an unholy alliance of political Stalinists, greed-maddened looters, crypto-racists, and religious bottom-feeders who seem to be in equal parts inspired by Elmer Gantry, John Calvin, and Rasputin; all of whom in their daily work of destroying America owe more to Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl than to the author of the Gettysburg address or to Teddy Roosevelt's square deal or Dwight Eisenhower's straight-arrow concerns about a military-industrial complex.

It's like some kind of cheesy horror movie where main-street citizens are eaten from the inside by aliens, becoming a ghastly and menacing semblance of their former selves.

So--just to refresh my memory of what Republicanism used to be--I was looking at some of the words of Teddy Roosevelt, which, if they were were served up without attribution to your average Republican today, would be as well received as the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto.

But I got sidetracked by actually listening to TR's voice. Some of his speeches were in fact recorded. I had never heard them. It's almost shocking to hear a voice from 90 or 95 years ago, words normally available only from the written page. I got really fascinated by his accent, which would be unplaceable today. TR was raised in New York City, and the only way you can hear that in his recorded words is in the way he pronounced words like "first" and "turned" as foist and toined. But otherwise his speech is really impossible to place among present-day American regional accents. He often rolled his r's like a lowland Scot, and some of his diphthongs sounded more British than American. (If you go to the web page I linked to, beware of the "transcriptions" of these speeches--the transcriber was even more perplexed by the sounds he was hearing than I was.)

But thank god speech does not get transformed as rapidly as ideology, or we would not be able to understand, or even recognize, a syllable of his remarks.

This is what Republicans used to stand for.

As a people we cannot afford to let any group of citizens or any individual citizen live or labor under conditions which are injurious to the common welfare. Industry, therefore, must submit to such public regulation as will make it a means of life and health, not of death or inefficiency. We must protect the crushable elements at the base of our present industrial structure.
We stand for a living wage. Wages are subnormal if they fail to provide a living for those who devote their time and energy to industrial occupations. The monetary equivalent of a living wage varies according to local conditions, but must include enough to secure the elements of a normal standard of living--a standard high enough to make morality possible, to provide for education and recreation, to care for immature members of the family, to maintain the family during periods of sickness, and to permit a reasonable saving for old age.
Hours are excessive if they fail to afford the worker sufficient time to recuperate and return to his work thoroughly refreshed.
We wish to control big business so as to secure among other things good wages for the wage-workers and reasonable prices for the consumers. We will not submit to the prosperity that is obtained by lowering the wages of working men and charging an excessive price to consumers, nor to that other kind of prosperity obtained by swindling investors or getting unfair advantages over business rivals.

--Theodore Roosevelt, various speeches

Imagine George Bush uttering these words. But you can't imagine that, can you?

Friday cat blogging

Cats up close.

Grendel on his office chair

Gray on top of the sofa

One of last week's Thanksgiving guests trying to convince Grendel that he too is a cat. Grendel is not buying it.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Dark wings in the greenbelt

Walking in the Onion Creek greenbelt today, I ran across a lone turkey vulture, which raised its wings and spread them when I has about 50 yards away. But unlike the vultures I blogged about recently, this one never flew away. It was a cool day, and the vulture's back was to the sun, so possibly this wing-extending is a vulture's way of warming itself.

Lifting its wings

Spreading them

It stayed this way for a couple of minutes

Eventually it folded up its wings and continued to sit on the dead branch. I continued on my walk.

A couple of hundred yards away I found a Red Admiral butterfly, still fairly active. In colder weather these butterflies will hibernate. I have found them very hard to photograph. They notice movement and tend to fly away if you approach very closely.

Bella, who never saw either of these winged creatures, had a good time on our walk.