Wednesday, November 30, 2011


December 1, 2011

"Barry, whom shall we get to play Santa for the White House Christmas party this year? Last year's guy turned out to be a Tea Party operative who told all the kids you were playing Santa Claus with their parents' money. I should've known. I thought I smelled Darjeeling on his breath."

"How about Newt Gingrich? He's got the girth and the hair. I wonder if he can grow a beard in a couple weeks."

"He's grown noses in less time than that."

"Forget it. He's too erratic. We need a stable Santa. Besides, his name sounds too much like ‘Grinch.'"

"What about Romney? That chameleon could morph into a Santa in the space of a debate cycle. The only problem is, not even Republican kids would believe in him. His name fits, though — every all-American boy and girl wants to find a mitt under the tree. Who else? Clinton?"

"Michelle, you've hit on it! Clinton's got global qualifications and I love that disheveled white hair. Add a red pant-suit, and . . ."

"Not Hillary, sillery. I meant Bill."

"Oh, Bill! Never think of him. But he sure fits the part, a right jolly old elf. Twinkling eyes and red nose to boot."

"Let's text him. See what he says."

"Too bad. He's busy that day. Playing Santa in Africa somewhere."

"Excuse me, Mr. and Mrs. Obama. I'd like to offer my services for your party."

"Who are you?"

"I'm Nicholas de Myra."

"How'd you get in here?"

"I have to advise you that your chimneys are not secure. You should alert the Secret Service about that."

"How'd you find out that we're looking for a Santa?"

"I hacked you in the Cloud. Gotta keep up with the times, you know. Parents don't want their kids sitting on Santa's lap anymore — can't be too careful. And kids don't know how to write letters anymore either. Facebook and Twitter are helpful, but it's that secret texting between parents that tells me what their kids really want — and what they'll really get."

"You do look authentic, right down to the ashes and soot. But I think we need a second opinion. Sasha, come here! Who is this man?"

"He's Santa Claus!"

"Now be sensible, girl. If you want to be a lawyer like your daddy and me, you've got to prove that this man really is Santa Claus."

"That depends on what your definition of ‘is' is."

"You'll be a good lawyer. Maybe even a President."

* * * * * * * * * * * *

"I can't believe it, Michelle. At the party, that guy worked the room even better than Bill could have. He actually had Boehner and Reid talking with each other instead of at each other. Even the worst ideologues left shaking hands, just like Macy and Gimble. And he got results, too. Before the Christmas recess, Congress passed a progressive tax, cut the defense budget, gave immigrants a path to citizenship, authorized high- speed trains. Of course a Santa would think of trains. I'm glad he likes drones, too, the naif. He thinks they're just oversized model airplanes."

"But I knew it wouldn't last. The Senate Homeland Security Committee just subpoenaed him."

* * * * * * * * * *

"Please state your name."

"Senator McCain, it's a pleasure to meet you. My full name is Nicholas de Myra, but most Americans call me Santa Claus. That's what comes out when you say ‘Saint Nicholas' really fast."

"It's nice to meet you too at last. Where were you born?"

"In the region of Lycia, which is now part of Turkey."

"Do you still live there?"

"Not for many years. The place got a little too hot for me, so I moved farther north."

"Are you a Muslim?"

"I used to be a Christian, but I've transcended that. I bring gifts to all children. I bring good will to all believers, including atheists."

"You're a citizen of . . ."

"The world."

"State your age."

"I'm not sure. Close to 1,700, I think."

"Don't make light of these proceedings. Can you produce a birth certificate?"

"Mr. McCain, have you become a birther too? To find out my age, you'd have to carbon-date me. Just be sure to clean off the ashes and soot."

"Mr. de Myra, you're undermining your credibility already, and you know that your credibility is why you are before us today. Don't get me wrong. I admire all the good you've done around here lately. The Congressional approval rating has jumped into double digits. Consumer confidence — and I know that seems to be your specialty — is bouncing back."

"So I see. In fact, I've written a little song about it:

     I'm dreaming of a Black Friday,
     Just like the ones I used to know.
     Where the midnight spending is never-ending,
     With Wal-Mart raking in the dough.
     I'm dreaming of a Black Friday,
     With Nooks and Kindles in my sack.
     May your bank card never be hacked,
     And may all your Fridays be as black.

"That's beautiful. Almost makes me believe."

"Oh, don't believe because of that; that's just economics. Believe the intangibles. Years ago at a similar hearing, my lawyer brought in sacks and sacks of mail addressed to Santa Claus, and the judge took that as proof enough of my identity. Those were the days, when the Postal Service was solvent. Have you checked your iPhone lately?"

"OMG, Facebook is full, and there's tons of tweets! Kids all over the world are threatening to occupy the Senate if we don't clear you. What do you say, colleagues?"

"Thank you for your vote of confidence, esteemed Senators. I'll head back north now; the reindeer are restless. And please don't forget the intangibles."


November 10, 2011
I'd like to say a few words about the relation of Greece to world economies. I don't understand it fully, but that doesn't deter me because I'm not sure that many politicians and even economists understand it fully either. In fact, I'm not sure that anybody anywhere really understands international economics, which have gotten so complex from globalization over the last several decades that "complex" is hardly descriptive of the magnitude. It's not Adam Smith's world anymore.

In ECON 101, the eye-opener in the first class is the revelation of the obvious — that all economies are driven by countless individual decisions about what to do with money, from whether to buy that candy bar to whether to buy that house, from whether to put your earnings into stocks or under the mattress. Suddenly students recognize they're the muscles and sinews of the Invisible Hand. Today, however, so many of these individual decisions are no longer made by individuals at all but by computers, which is why radical swings in the stock market, attributed daily by the media to tiny upticks in employment and tiny downticks in industrial production, are actually automatically triggered by logarithm, trading billions of shares with little or no human intervention. My so-called portfolio doesn't stand a chance against those forces.

The play of great economic forces on the small includes small countries as well, most poignantly illustrated by the case of Greece. Since adopting the euro as its currency a decade ago, Greece has become a groveling debtor to the big banks. Thinking their loans on the euro standard were ironclad, the banks shoveled money to Greece, despite its history of corruption and political unrest, its top-heavy state bureaucracy, and its lavish social-service spending.

After the world crash of 2008, things turned sour indeed, as Greece's own economy lagged in the euro-zone and the bonds kept coming due. Pressured for "fiscal responsibility" by the European Union, the government imposed "austerity measures" on the country in February of 2010 — salary freezes, benefit reductions, and layoffs of government workers — setting off mass demonstrations and strikes. Those measures weren't austere enough to satisfy the Big Guns of the E.U., notably Germany and France, and over the course of a year, more were imposed, including enormous tax increases coupled with steep decreases in salaries, pensions, and social services. Less money earned and more money taxed — even before taking ECON 101, anybody with common sense sees that's no way to spark an economy. As Keynes turned restlessly in his grave, Greece's GDP declined and the budget remained grossly out of balance, while the public debt continued to grow.

Yet now the E.U. is insisting on still more austerity in return for infusions of cash from its Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and for negotiating a 50-percent "haircut" — now there's a term — in outstanding loans from private banks, supposedly to prevent complete default.

Meanwhile, the demonstrations continue with ferocity. The entire country is angry at everybody — the E.U. as instigator, the government as implementor, the banks as the wolf at the door. It's an anger born of impotence, a feeling that Greece's identity as a sovereign state is being swallowed whole by Germany, France, the IMF, and the big banks. Jean-Paul Fitoussi, an economics professor in Paris, told the New York Times that Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicholas Sarkozy of France "were acting as if they were the real government of Greece."

Several weeks ago, as I read about these unfolding events, I thought: Wouldn't the citizens of Greece regain at least a shred of their self-esteem and even embrace some austerities if they were consulted on these matters, drawn into dialogue with their government, invited to work collaboratively to share both present sacrifice and future benefit? Thus I was pleasantly surprised last week when the American-educated Prime Minister, George Papandreou, proposed just that: a referendum on the E.U. bailout plan. Whatever his motivations — and the speculations on them were diverse, from sheer stupidity to a crafty way to garner votes for the bailout in Parliament — I'd like to trust his own explanation: "Let us allow the people to have the last word; let them decide the country's fate."

Of course, Merkel and Sarkozy, enraged at his ungrateful impudence, immediately and almost literally took him to the woodshed, publicly humiliating him and forcing him to recant.

What a pity. In a land that coined the term 2500 years ago, demos-kratia — the people's rule — was quashed by foreign powers. Who knows how the people might have spoken?

One way for Greece to throw off the yoke of the banks and reassert its sovereignty would be to throw off the euro and return to its own currency, the drachma. There are as many projected outcomes of this move as there are economists who make them — which proves my point about complexity, above — but the most hopeful one to me is the comparison with Argentina, which released its peg on the U.S. dollar and reinstated the peso in 2002. After a period of disruption, bank runs, and inflation, export goods selling at devalued prices became attractive, foreign investment returned, conditions stabilized, and Argentina's economy is now growing steadily.

The big banks are petrified at this prospect, and Chancellor Merkel herself recently remarked that the bailout has been fashioned not to save Greece but to save the euro.

Regaining control of the small from the big is the overarching theme of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupying Athens, the original seat of democracy, would not be a bad idea at all.


November 3, 2011
One of the most remarkable things about the "Arab Spring," besides that it happened at all, is the unique ways in which it happened, country by country. Spontaneously generated and developing more organically than systematically, each of these revolutions will be analyzed by historians and social scientists as models of the dynamics of power and their ultimate results. Such analysis is exceedingly complex, involving a host of factors, including the extent and depth of popular and political grievances, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the opposed government and its successors, the role of the military and police, the cohesion or fragmentation of the society, the level of education and the grip of indoctrination, the tactics of resistance, and the intervention by foreign powers.

A distinguishing feature of the Arab Spring is the use or rejection of violence as a tool of revolution. On one end of the spectrum is Tunisia, whose protests remained largely peaceful despite police crackdowns and the deaths of over 200 protesters. Less than a month after the demonstrations began, the aged president Ben Ali abdicated. Several interim governments rose and fell until the vestiges of Ben Ali's political apparatus were purged and the secret police force was dissolved. Last week, ten months into the revolution, elections were held for a Constituent Assembly to frame a new constitution, with 90 percent voter turnout. The Nahdah party, considered "moderate Islamist," won a plurality of the seats. The social and political situation seems to have stabilized, but questions remain about the ongoing freedom of the country under Nahdah rule.

In the middle of the spectrum of violence is Egypt, whose protests also remained predominantly nonviolent and resulted in the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, also within a month. Unlike in Tunisia, however, the cronies of the deposed dictator have held on to power, postponing elections and reimposing limits on free speech and assembly. Insidiously, they are attempting to undermine the effectiveness of the protesters by diversion and division along religious fault-lines. On October 9, a peaceful march for the civil rights of the Coptic Christian minority, formerly protected by Mubarak but now assailed by Islamist elements, was attacked by a mob possibly summoned by the police; it took the army, once considered sympathetic to the protest movement, six hours to respond and restore order. By then, 27 were dead, both Copts and supporting Muslims. Will the goals of the revolution be subverted by infiltration?

At the other end of the spectrum of violence is Libya. In this case, peaceful protests lasted but a few weeks before being supplanted by disaffected soldiers in remote areas who commandeered stockpiles of government weapons. This action not only played into the hand of dictator Muamar Qaddafi, flush with weapons supplied by the arms merchants of Europe, but drew the Western powers into the conflict like a magnet. Nonviolent opposition is a mystery to the military mind, which is why if resistance to Qaddafi had remained peaceful, the United States and Europe might have refrained from intervention and let the internal dynamic take its own course, as they did with Tunisia and Egypt and are now doing with Syria and Yemen. Once the revolution had become a war, it was easy for military powers to understand and thus to intervene under the pretext of protecting civilians (having made no effort to protect civilians in the other revolutions) and forestalling "genocide" (of which there was in fact no evidence). The NATO mission was a nice live-fire exercise for an organization that for decades has had virtually nothing to do. For reasons still unclear — brainwashing? fear? Qaddafi's total control of all institutions? genuine support? — loyalty to the dictator perdured; his was not the house of cards they had expected. It took seven months, 9,600 bombing sorties, and a cost of $2 billion for the U.S. alone and billions more for the other participating nations to dislodge him.

The barbaric assassination of Qaddafi, along with the claim of the interim government that he was "caught in the crossfire" (a prevarication lifted directly from the CIA playbook for the assassination of Osama bin Laden) continued the cycle of violence and lies. Despite the wanton expenditure of firepower between Qaddafi and the rebels, the cache of armaments and munitions amassed by the dictator was so enormous that there still are plenty left to fuel factional wars and/or terrorist insurgencies. The present government's rhetoric of liberation and promises of free elections and a stable society, even if honest, may be vaporized in the atmosphere of arms.

Still moving fluidly along the spectrum of violence are the protests in Syria and Yemen. What their ultimate model of revolution will be remains to be seen.


October 27, 2011

The following column appeared in the Easy Reader on March 31, shortly after NATO forces began their air campaign over Libya. I reprint it here to remind you of my early take on the situation in Libya; next week, I'll offer an update.

On the cover of The New Yorker magazine for March 14, a drawing by Barry Blitt depicts Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, as a scarecrow, dressed in military finery, stuffed with straw, and mounted on a stick, with a desert landscape below. Flying around the scarecrow is a flock of white doves, several of them pulling tufts of straw protruding from its arms and head, another unraveling the braids on the uniform, gathering nesting material for spring.

The drawing is entitled, "Hope is the thing with feathers."

How quickly hawks snatch doves in flight, scattering their feathers in the wind.

Barely a month ago, as Blitt was pitching his idea to The New Yorker's editors, it seemed to much of the watching world that the near-miracle of peaceful revolution wrought in Tunisia and Egypt would replicate itself in Libya. Mass protests calling for Qaddafi's resignation were met with a waffling similar to that of those aged dictators to his east and west: a show of force followed by the promise of concessions. Qaddafi's brutal crackdown against the demonstrators in mid-February shocked even his own government, with two of his air force pilots flying their French-built Mirage jets to asylum in Malta and several of his ambassadors and diplomatic staff resigning their posts.

A few more days of demonstration might have toppled the regime. But for reasons as yet unclear, the center of nonviolent opposition did not hold. Disaffected military personnel seized arms and munitions in outlying regions and persuaded some of the citizens to join them in battle. Quick as that, protesters had become rebels; civil resistance had become civil war.

Thus allowed to play the game the way he liked it, Qaddafi set about smashing the revolt with attacks from air and ground — and almost immediately drew much of Europe into the vortex of violence. This crazy-as-a-fox colonel had been pushing the buttons of the West for 40 years, now threatening, now cozying up, back and forth — first a Communist and then an anti- Communist, first a terrorist and then an anti-terrorist. Having blown up the Pan Am plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 and then having initiated a chemical and nuclear weapons program, he turned right around and apologized, proffering reparations to the Lockerbie survivors and dismantling his WMD's, hoodwinking none other than George W. Bush in 2004 to rescind Libya's terrorist status, thus clearing the path for multi-billion-dollar arms deals with France, Italy, Germany, and Russia, among others. It is those very weapons, so readily supplied to a country lacking a single external threat, that he's now using against the rebels, and that the U.S. and NATO are now firing their missiles at to take out.

So here we go again.

Another megalomaniac Little Caesar twirling the great powers around his finger. Another internal conflict inflated into an international one. Another military intervention in the name of protecting civilians with so-called "pinpoint bombing" that inevitably results in the death of civilians they are bombing to protect. Another commitment to topple — or not to topple, can't get quite clear on that one yet — the dictator with only the vaguest knowledge of who will take his place. Another rejection of Colin Powell's doctrine that every entrance strategy must have an exit strategy.

And thus far, despite it all, the latest Little Caesar remains, laughing at the world while his country goes up in smoke.

How can this be, and so soon, too, with Iraq so fresh in the mind?

President Obama's defense of military action in Libya, outlined in his address to the nation on Monday, is based on would-have's and could-have's: "We knew if we waited one more day, Benghazi — a city nearly the size of Charlotte — could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. ... A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya's borders .... The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship .... A failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America."

Preemptive war is a war of would-have's.

But since we're speculating, there is another set of would- have's to consider: What would have happened had the Libyan resistance remained nonviolent? What would have happened had the militants been left without external assistance? Would those democratic impulses dawning across the region have been strengthened or diminished had the "international community" opted against force?

Oh yes, and one could-it-be: Could it yet be that in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and even Palestine, those things with feathers will continue to pick at their respective scarecrows?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


October 20, 2011

Last Sunday, the New York City Community Garden Coalition occupied Wall Street. It was a good day to do it. October 16 is World Food Day, commemorating the founding of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization on that date in 1945. The FAO's focus this year in meetings and rallies across the globe was on the problem of swings in food prices caused by commodities speculation, a dynamic that threatens the hungry from the Horn of Africa to the South Bronx.

Community gardens, often dismissed as whimsical patches of green where claustrophobic apartment-dwellers do fantasy farming, play a surprisingly large role in maintaining urban food security. A research project oxymoronically named Farming Concrete, which tracks the amount of food harvested by New York City gardeners, reports that last year the 110 participating gardens produced about 87,700 pounds of fruits and vegetables. Extrapolate that figure to the 400 or so gardens that didn't submit data, and you're really talking food security, immune from price-swings.

The Garden Coalition is a good fit for the Occupy Wall Street movement, with its decade-long history of battling the Big Guys — in this case, Big Development, which for years has sought to bulldoze these little havens for more buildings. It's 99% vs. 1% in earth tones, and the Coalition, along with other greening groups, has succeeded in beating them back — at least for now.

On this bright and breezy autumn afternoon, Coalition members tagged up with a World Food Day rally in Foley Square near City Hall, sponsored by a group called Millions against Monsanto. Then, bearing their banners, they proceeded to march the several blocks to Zuccotti Park, the pulsing heart of Occupy Wall Street. The Financial District, which in times past was all but deserted on weekends, was teeming with people, most going to and coming from both the newly-opened 9/11 Memorial and Zuccotti Park, now as world-renowned as Cairo's Tahrir Square.

As the contingent made its way through the crowd, they took up the chant: "More green! Less greed! More green! Less greed!" Halted by a red light, they were approached by a man in a smart pinstripe suit and straw hat. "I agree with the part about the green," he grinned and walked away.

When the group reached the park, they staked out a spot, jostling for space among dozens of disparate causes: free education, full employment, justice for Agent Orange survivors, ending corporate personhood, Medicare for all, anti-Big Pharma, anti-fluoridated water, and of course, anti-bank everything. They became a tile in that living mosaic of solidarity, framed in a city block.

In the month since its occupation by Occupy Wall Street, Zuccotti Park has become a functioning commune, with organic soup kitchens, first-aid clinics, book exchanges, impromptu schools on all subjects, and electronics charging stations — everything necessary and desirable except plumbing, now being passively provided by nearby fast-food chains. (No anti-McDonald's groups were in evidence.) Also of critical importance is the sign-making area, offering materials, space, and probably no little kibitzing for the construction of that most anachronistic yet most effective communication device of Occupy Wall Street: the hand- lettered sign.

The signs spring up in the park like mushrooms, and seem to grow ever cleverer through competition. They range from the general ("Mean People Suck") to the specific ("519 years of occupation through genocide. Remember the Native Holocaust."); from the rhyme ("Health Care, not Wealth Care") to the pun ("NYC Community Gardeners demand Peas and Justice"); from the hopeful ("99% + 1% = 100%. We are all one.") to the almost hopeless ("Why am I here? Because voting, lobbying, writing letters, lyrics, columns, and speeches hasn't done SHIT.").

Taken as a whole, the signs may describe the essence of the movement, elusive even to its originators: the yearning to breathe free. Spontaneously generating in cities all over the world, Occupy may be fulfilling a need for community and honesty (now euphemized as "transparency") that the dystopic machine of the "world community" and its octopus economy cannot. This is what Marx was about until Lenin reworked him.

The fruit of the movement may be more personal than political, more local than global. Its participants may return to their homes feeling more like humans and less like cogs. Rather than forcing the 1% to change their ways, many of the 99% may change their own, shaking off at least a chain or two of the anonymous social monolith to which all of us are enslaved.

It's about getting back to the Garden.

Deep inside Zuccotti Park on Sunday, a solemn-faced woman sat at a card table bearing the hand-lettered sign: FREE EMPATHY. She had no clients, but perhaps that was because empathy was free all around.

Photo credits: #1: Roger Repohl; #2 and #3: Magali Regis

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


October 13, 2011

"Look at how hard they're working," my bee-master Bob Jeffers told me one spring day a decade ago when I was his apprentice. Before entering the hives, we would spend some time observing the activity of the bees outside as they came back in clouds from their foraging expeditions, laden with nectar and pollen. "Do you know what they're thinking? They're thinking of winter."

Most of us are existentialists in springtime, crazy for the moment, living in the warmth of the now. Not so the honeybee colony. Its workforce of thousands is being deployed to ensure its survival during the five or so months here in the Northeast when there are no flowers and the bees remain inside, clustered in a tight ball, shivering their bodies to generate heat, and consuming the stores of honey and pollen they'd built up in the warm season. Our colonies here need at least 60 pounds of honey to last them to the spring.

Right now, in the fall, the colony is preparing for its long winter wait. On warm days, the foraging workers, all sterile females, are bringing in the last drops of nectar from late- blooming plants — chrysanthemums, asters, goldenrods, and their particular favorite, Russian sage. It is at this time that you see many of them on the ground around their hive, wings frayed, exhausted from their labors, struggling to make it home with their cargo one final time. Inside the hive, the queen bee gradually slows down her egg-laying duties from her summertime high of over a thousand a day to almost none by late fall. With no flowers to visit, the production of young halts until mid- winter, when she begins strengthening the colony for the spring. As the weather turns cold, the colony's energies become focused solely on survival; everything unnecessary must be eliminated.

And that includes the male bees — the drones.

The sole function of the drone is to inseminate a virgin queen from another colony; his duty fulfilled, he dies in the process. Other than performing this critical function — and only the most aggressive get the chance — drones are useless. True to their name, they do no work in the hive and just loll about, eating precious honey. Mating occurs in spring and summer; by the fall, those that are left are disposed of.

Standing in front of the beehive on a chilly October day, you may see the eviction of the drones. Bulkier than their sisters and with enormous eyes ("The better to see you, my dear"), they are easy to identify. They are escorted outside by the workers; seemingly confused, they try to return but are prevented by the guards at the entrance. Soon they will die from the cold.

As we witnessed this event some years ago, Bob Jeffers shook his head and laughed ironically. "It's Darfur," he said.

The reason we can take honey for ourselves is that honeybees are hoarders. They will not stop with their requisite 60 pounds but will continue packing it away as long as there are enough flowers producing nectar, enough workers to gather it, and enough space to store it. When nectar dries up in the heat of summer, foraging bees from powerful colonies will invade weaker ones. Mounting an assault like medieval soldiers storming the gate of a castle, hundreds of bees will fight their way past the guards at the entrance of a vulnerable hive and plunder its contents, leaving the abject colony to die of starvation during the winter. Beekeepers call this activity "robbing," and in apiaries of side- by-side colonies it can become pathological, with foragers even ignoring flowers and going after ready-made honey instead, swirling around the bee yard in a frenzy. Once robbing starts, it's difficult for beekeepers to stop it; the best they can do is to plug up the entrances to the victim hives, leaving just enough open space for the bees to defend adequately and to enter and exit for their own foraging.

I had this happen in my apiary this year. It's appalling to open up a hive and see combs that should be heavy with honey sucked completely dry. No matter how strong a colony appears to be, without honey stores it is doomed to die over the winter. In desperation, I feed the bees a sugar-water syrup until the weather freezes, and pure sugar after that. And hope against hope.

A few years ago, a beekeeper named Holly Bishop published a "biography of honey" called Robbing the Bees. Her title refers to humans' long history of taking the bees' food for themselves. Before the invention of the movable-frame hives which we use today, removing honey involved not just robbery but murder — the bees had to be killed to get at it. Today most beekeepers leave plenty of honey for the bees' own use, taking only the surplus. Holly Bishop does not mention the robbing that bees do to each other.

Do not be deluded by the common myth that honeybees are lovable models of altruism. Think of Darwin instead.

And think of our own pathologies of exploitation and extermination, long before and long after Darfur.


October 6, 2011

It's once around the world, once around the clock:

NEW YORK — The Occupy Wall Street movement, which a couple weeks ago was just another ragtag bunch of crazy kids camping out in a city park, has turned into something like a force. The numbers have swelled from dozens to thousands, composed of a growing array of mad-as-hell people frustrated by wealth- disparity and the apparent determination of a bought-and-paid-for government to keep it that way. Now you've got Michael Moore plying the crowd, and even some labor unions poised to join up. The demonstrations have gone from polite marches around Lower Manhattan to storming the Brooklyn Bridge, where 700 were arrested on Sunday for blocking traffic. Who'd have guessed that the tactics used in Tunisia and Egypt would translate so well to America? And who'd have guessed that the Tea Party would be countered by a grass-roots movement on the left for the first time since Vietnam? The Arab Spring turns into the Financial Fall. Now cells of the movement are springing up in major cities across the country, including Los Angeles. Is a viable third party about to emerge?

YEMEN — On Friday, the United States assassinated two of its own citizens, Al Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, an editor of the organization's on-line English magazine, in a targeted drone strike on their car. It was a clean little operation that brought them to justice while avoiding the expensive and time-consuming alternative of apprehending and trying them. So the Wild West turns up in the Middle East.

The War on Terrorism was first conducted as if it were a real war, with military invasions and occupations. That was the wrong way to deal with an invisible enemy, but at least it was aboveboard and nominally subject to international law. Now the job has been turned over to the CIA, gunslingers who operate under the legal radar, with little apparent constraint by Congress and with the full support of our Nobel Peace Prize President. Terror begets terror.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina Republican Party announced Monday that it would move up the state's presidential primary to January 21, leapfrogging over Iowa and New Hampshire and trumping Florida's own leapfrog date of January 31, determined just last week. New Hampshire, which has an "us first" rule, may set its primary in December. It's checkers, played on a very big board.

In 1933, the U.S. Constitution was amended to move the inauguration of Presidents from March to January; given the increased speed of transportation and communication, a four-month gap between election and inauguration was clearly unnecessary. Here we have the reverse: the possibility of nearly a full year between the first primary and the general election, forcing even more money to be raised and spent on mindless and mind-numbing campaign ads. Common sense would dictate that given the increased speed of our own transportation and communication, we'd only need a couple months to select candidates, give them a hearing, and make up our collective minds. If the hopefuls actually took a year to refine their positions on issues, it might make some sense, but all that will be refined is the precision of attack ads.

TRENTON, N.J. — Republicans, dissatisfied with their either dull or dotty slate of possibilities and looking for straight- talking charisma, spent the last few weeks pressuring New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to throw his belt in the ring. Lawyer, county freeholder, lobbyist, U.S. attorney, and for just a year and eight months, governor: Now there's a résumé for President even slimmer than Barack Obama's was. Isn't anybody worried about the 3 a.m. phone call? Sensibly, he conquered the temptation, leaving the party to seek another savior.

Hey, wait a minute! Why not tap Admiral Mike Mullen? There's a guy with real experience, and judging from his recent Congressional testimony and media interviews, he's got straight- talking charisma aplenty. He just retired from the military and may be looking for something to occupy his golden years.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Bank of America announced last week that it would begin charging customers $5 a month for using their debit cards. What were they thinking? As if the American public were not pissed off enough at big banks (see lead story above), here they go nickeling and diming folks for taking out their own money.

Go ahead, Chase, now's your chance! Announce that you'll gladly welcome all customers from fee-charging banks, smoothly transitioning their accounts, direct deposits, and automatic payments, and maybe even giving them $5 a month for a year. You could gut your competition and increase your bottom line by billions in new deposits, and become the unlikely hero of the middle class as well.

NEW YORK — Andy Rooney delivered his last monologue on 60 Minutes last Sunday after 33 years on the job. Did you ever notice how the more things change, the more they stay the same?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


September 29, 2011

It was about time that the Palestinians — half of them, anyway — brought their case for independence to the United Nations. After decades of being treated, and treating themselves, as non-persons, it was an "I-am-Somebody" moment.

Right from the beginning, when the stymied British off- loaded Palestine to the fledgling U.N. to deal with, the Arab peoples of the region were more in the way than on the way. With the exception of six months of deadly skirmishes with the Jewish settlers following the U.N. resolution of partition in 1947, all the wars in Palestine were initiated, or provoked, by outsiders — Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq. Refugees displaced by the wars were shunted into camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, where their descendants remain to this day; not even their Arab brethren thought them worthy of integration into their societies.

It took 15 years after the partition for the Palestinians to develop a semblance of leadership of their own, the Fatah or Palestine Liberation Organization, but their terrorist tactics alienated most of the world. Since replacing the confrontational, erratic, and bizarre-looking Yasser Arafat as leader of the Fatah party in 2004, Mahmoud Abbas has nurtured a civilized, sensible, and nonviolent image that has brought international legitimacy and credibility to the Palestinian cause — though his efforts have been sabotaged by the retrograde Hamas party in Gaza, with its misguided (in both senses) rocket attacks and its anachronistic refusal to recognize the Jewish state.

Abbas went to the U.N. to make the rest of the world come clean. He knew, of course, that his application for statehood status would be rejected one way or another, but he wanted a recorded vote. He also wanted to unmask the contradictory positions of the United States. Just four months ago, President Obama called for a two-state solution with borders based on those that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War, and "land swaps" to accommodate some of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Abbas's petition resulted in an embarrassing about-face: the threat of a U.S. veto in the Security Council, based on the premises that such recognition would impede the resumption of talks and that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be resolved only by the two parties themselves — both rather strange, given the utter stalemate of the so-called "peace process" over the last couple decades.

The whole issue keeps getting thornier, just when you thought it couldn't possibly get any thornier. The "Arab Spring" that is working its way through Israel's neighbors adds even more instability and uncertainty to the region, further heightening the country's sense of threat and making it even more unlikely to engage the Palestinians. The Israeli settlements on the West Bank continue to grow, turning the area into a crazy-quilt of jurisdictions that will make even the most minimal proposals of "land swaps" ever more difficult. And then there is Hamas. Nothing at all can be accomplished until Hamas rejects violence and embraces the two-state solution, impossible to imagine in the near term.

Some observers predict that the likely rejection of President Abbas's bid for full U.N. membership will provoke Palestinian violence and hamstring the role of the United States in the "peace process." Regarding the latter, it may be a signal for America to release its grip and allow other countries to assume the task of mediation, as France has proposed. Regarding the former, Abbas's insistence on nonviolence will, I think, not go unheeded. In his unassuming way, he is giving West-Bank Palestinians a sense of their own identity and integrity — which, as Gandhi and King showed in like circumstances, is the real key to liberation.

We are Somebody.


September 15, 2011

Early last Friday evening, my friend Judy and I were walking down Tenth Avenue near 23rd Street in Chelsea. We passed a U-Haul van pulled over to the curb with a police car, lights flashing, behind it. The driver stood next to his vehicle, being questioned by the officers.
"See that?" said Judy. "It's 9/11 paranoia. I had to drive around the city all day today, and the traffic was snarled everywhere by all the searches. I lived downtown ten years ago, and I saw the towers fall. All this stuff just brings back the horror, and I don't need it. What good does it do? Why can't we just move on?"
It's like scratching a scab.
"This whole thing is just what happened right after the attacks," she continued, "the orange alerts and stuff. Today I heard the government had, quote, ‘credible evidence' that Al Qaeda was planning to bomb the tunnels and subways and the police were looking for two American Arabs. Then in the same breath they said they had no specifics. It's all done to keep us fearful."
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a similar point on his Friday radio show. "We've got to make sure we don't let the terrorists take away our rights without any terrorism," he said. "If you lock yourself in your house because you're scared, they're winning. If you don't let somebody else pray or say what they want to say or you deny any rights to certain people — that's exactly what they want. I don't think we should do that."
A word of good sense. Of course, he and his police chief Ray Kelly ordered the searches. As one anonymous law enforcement official told the New York Times, the plot "could all be one big fabrication, but no one wants to take any chances."
I suppose you can't be too careful, and I myself had mixed feelings of revulsion and relief watching the NYPD deal with the man in the van.
That's the nature of terrorism. It's like those poltergeist movies: Your skin crawls because you never know when and how the killer will strike; you don't even know who or what the killer is. No matter how strong you are or what actions you take, you feel impotent in the face of the unknown. You want to direct your seething rage, but there is nowhere to direct it. You want to protect yourself from another attack, but the enemy is a phantom.
Just look at the government's responses to 9/11 over the last decade: Another bloated bureaucracy with the still-eerie name of Homeland Security (Fatherland and Motherland having already been taken); two military invasions with loss of innocent life exponentially greater than that on our shores; practices of torture that got no results and only defiled America's sense of decency and integrity; a monstrous airport security apparatus that keeps the country in a constant low-level state of anxiety and fear.
Whether or not any of these actions, costing trillions of dollars and untold damage to body and spirit, has been effective, we'll never know. How many of the rumored plots were real, and how many were "fabrications"? Most of the ones we know were real, like the Shoe Bomber, the Underwear Bomber, and that goofball who set his truck on fire in Times Square, were thwarted by the bumbling perpetrators themselves.
Unlike the movies, there is no ending, no resolution. Even the assassination of Bin Laden last May, shamelessly gloated over by our President, brought no relief, only a momentary release of frustration and a shallow burst of flag-waving. No V-J Day here.
It's to the credit of the American people, imbued with the spirit of freedom and equality and chastened by memories of lynchings and interments, that this anxiety, fear, and pent-up rage have not, except at the fringes, been released on the Muslim community. The angels of our better nature, up to now at least, appear to be winning.
The tenth anniversary ceremonies, and the telling and re- telling of stories of tragic loss and unparalleled heroism that occupied the media in the weeks preceding, were acts of catharsis, a form of therapy for our collective post-traumatic stress disorder. The focus of most of it was not against enemies, whoever they were and may be, but toward the resilience of the human spirit in the face of disaster, no matter what the cause.
Now it is over for a while again, but it is never really over. What we must do, as Judy said, is move on.


September 8, 2011

The terrorist attacks of ten years ago left untold scars on the American psyche. When the towers fell, whole worldviews fell with them.
My friend Jim first heard the news when he returned to his office at a small college here in New York after his class on Buddhism. The study of comparative religions had been good to Jim; twenty years in the academic saddle had allowed him and his wife Sarah to buy a big apartment on the Upper West Side before the area became desirable and to give their two children a privileged education. He'd turned 54 the day before; another decade or so of grading papers, updating his syllabi, and grumbling about the administration would bring him a happy retirement — maybe a farmette in the Poconos, where he could grow masses of vegetables and write the book he never had time for before.
He'd majored in religion not in hopes of a career but in hopes of a revelation. He'd been a skeptic from his youth, yet he was drawn to religious ideas; somewhere in that tangle must lie the key to self-discovery.
What he loved was the Big Questions, from the existence of God to the existence of evil to existence after death, and as a teacher he performed more like a lawyer in a courtroom or Socrates in the Agora, confounding every facile argument and prodding his students to think, damn you, think.
His own quest for God was never fulfilled. "Religious systems have a lovely symmetry," he told me years ago, "but I'm not sure they have a referent."
Before grad school and before his marriage, he'd spent a year in a Zen monastery in upstate New York, seeking satori, that flash of enlightenment where the mind, as one master put it, is as clear as a polished mirror. But of course, the more you long for satori, the less likely it will come.
A type of satori hit him that day. In his course on Buddhism he had been discussing the "Four Passing Sights" which would eventually turn the young Siddhartha Gautama into the Enlightened One: an aged person, a diseased person, a corpse, and a peaceful ascetic. He had taken his students into the hallway of the building, where photographs of graduating classes dating back almost a century were displayed. "Look carefully at these faces," he told them. "They're just like you. Work backwards: Class of 2000, 1970, 1940, 1910. Where are these people now? In fact, who were they at all?"
Pleased with the sobering results of his presentation, he returned to the faculty building to find his colleagues huddled around the television in the history chair's office. "This is the end of America as we've known it," she prophesied. "The ceremony of innocence is drowned."
Jim knew no one who worked in the Twin Towers, but many of his former core-curriculum students had taken jobs around Wall Street. Where are they now? Later he learned that the husband of one of them had perished in the collapse.
Like many of us that night, he and his wife lay sleepless. Their children, both away at college, had called to ask if everything was all right with them. "Physically, yes," he told them. "Spiritually, I don't know."
"In all my years of teaching," he confided to me some years ago, "I never painted a pristine picture of religion. From the Book of Joshua to the crusades to the jihads, I felt students needed to reflect on the dark side of religion. It was a contradiction I could not solve, but to me then it was just another intellectual question. I'd became something of a Manichean, thinking that there must be a fixed quantity of evil in the human collective; when it's tamped down in one place, it erupts in another, like vulcanism.
"That night, my uneasy peace with religious violence began to unravel. When my students asked me next class what I thought of the disasters, my rhetorical skills vanished. All I could say was ‘I don't know.'
"That semester was literally horrible for me. The questions that had fascinated me all my life became absurdities. I kept thinking of that line by the devil Nickles in J.B. by Archibald MacLeish — his free-verse play on the Book of Job: ‘If God is God, He is not good. If God is good, He is not God.'
"The only thing that made sense were the syllables of Hindu mystics. At the end of their journey, all they could say about God was ‘Neti, neti' — ‘Not this, not this.' How can you teach a course when all you have is one word?"
Jim quit teaching two years later and bought a half-interest in a neighborhood wine shop. He and Sarah travel to Europe at least once a year, picking up bargains.
Except on rare occasions, he never mentions religion.


September 1, 2011

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took no chances this time, for reasons as political as practical. Last winter, his administration was roundly ridiculed for doing too little and too late when a major blizzard swept through — streets unplowed, cars stranded in snowbanks, subways snarled.
That was the cold memory on the hot nights of last week, as citizens and city officials watched Hurricane Irene march toward the Atlantic coast. Irene was nothing like her name; hardly irenic, she portended to match the most damaging hurricanes of the past. The trajectory projected a direct hit on the city, the fulfillment of all those Gotham-gothic cinematic scenarios. Bloomberg's third-term poll numbers were lower than the air pressure in a hurricane's eye; to save himself, he had to do things right this time.
So in moves unprecedented, he ordered the entire metropolitan transit system shut down, and people living near the ocean, the rivers, and the sounds — some 280,000 of them — to evacuate. All events were canceled; Broadway would be dark on Saturday and Sunday, in addition to the usual Mondays, anticipating the inundation of the Great White Way by the Great White Wave. Those outside the evacuation area were told to stay inside; those living above the tenth floor in buildings throughout the city were admonished to seek shelter with their neighbors below. Media meteorologists advised taping windows so if they broke, the glass would more likely fall into the street, not the room; if your bed is near a window and can't be moved, they cautioned, sleep with a sheet up over your head to protect yourself from shattering glass. Stock up on drinking water, flashlights and batteries, and canned foods; while the occurrence itself would be short, the effects might be very long.
Pre-hurricane Friday was beautiful — sunny, warm, and calm. Gardeners at Genesis Park Community Garden here in the South Bronx came by to harvest their cucumbers, squash, and tomatoes. I asked them if they were ready. "It's just a hurricane," said a man from the Dominican Republic. "We get them all the time at home." One native New Yorker in his 70's just shrugged. "Forget about it," he huffed. "Nothing'll happen. I've been through lots of these. In the days before satellite pictures and all the media hype, we just used our common sense. When I was a boy, hurricanes didn't have names. Now they're like the personification of evil, some Greek goddess, Medusa or somebody."
Many others were taking the threat seriously. The local supermarkets were clogged with customers Friday and early Saturday, denuding the shelves of bottled water and batteries, carts piled high with provisions, including frozen foods — strange things to buy, I thought, in the face of a power outage.
The actual event was more of a non-event, at least to those on high ground, like around here. As the hurricane approached the city Saturday night, it was already deteriorating into a tropical storm. The rain came down in sheets, but the winds were much weaker than predicted, and there was no loss of power. When the eye of the storm passed overhead in the early afternoon on Sunday — indeed a direct hit — the sky cleared and a few of us neighbors drove around to survey the damage, which amounted to just a couple of downed small trees. We ended up in a little coffee shop on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx's Little Italy, the only establishment in the area brave enough to open. "I'm disappointed!" one person at the table said over his plate of silver-dollar pancakes. "I was hoping for some drama."
Actually, the comparatively worst was yet to come. As the remnants of the storm moved north, the winds came up the rear. By early Sunday evening the gusts were approaching frightening; the lights flickered momentarily, shingles flew off roofs, trees swayed mightily — they're built for wind — but everything seemed to hold. In the morning I went to the garden and found its huge plum tree toppled. It was old and unproductive, and I'd long thought of cutting it down. Mother Nature did it for me.
Many people, before and after the hurricane, were quick to criticize the mayor for taking measures they considered disproportionately severe. I didn't, and I don't. What the city undertook was an exercise in preparedness and prevention, and to me it was a beautiful thing to see. New York tried out its disaster plan in real time and brought most of its eight million people, imagine that, together in common defense. Not a single life was lost. Were the trains kept running and the warnings more lax, who knows what troubles we'd have seen?
With the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the back of every New Yorker's head, this was a dry run, shall we say, for emergencies to come, both from nature and from man.
Plus, now everybody's got a story to tell.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


August 25, 2011

Gov. Rick Perry would make a great president.
As he tirelessly reminds us, the United States is a shambles — mounting debt, high unemployment, religiously unrooted, over- taxed, entangled in entitlements, with a Federal Reserve Bank whose actions are treasonous and a federal government seeping like an oil spill into every individual's life.
It's time for a daring experiment, and he's just the man to undertake it. Imagine: He could totally eliminate the federal bureaucracy, return to the gold standard, bring Christ and creationism back into the public schools, secure foreign borders, privatize Social Security and health care. It would be the biggest social revolution since the New Deal, and he could do it all if he were the president — of Texas.
Rick, don't waste your purpose-driven life running for an office that will only frustrate you. You call Washington "the Devil's city," and now you're aspiring to go smack in the center of it. Besides, the U.S. is just too big and complex to allow your vision to flourish. But Texas! There you'd have a nice little country about the same size as Spain or Afghanistan, with a GDP and population close to that of Australia. You've spoken of this for years; why not go for it? Resurrect the Republic of Texas, born in valiant revolution against Mexico and independent for a decade, until in 1845 President Sam Houston, over great objection, got it folded into the U.S. — primarily so the federal government could assume Texas's enormous war debt. How's that for irony? For old-time Texans, the Republic is their meta-narrative, and who is better able to make their myth a realty than you?
Of course, there will be obstacles, but you're no Sisyphus — you can push those boulders right over the top. Presuming that the U.S. is now too weak-willed and war-weary to fight, you can begin as soon as your legislature ratifies the articles of secession.
It'll be chaos for a while, ushering the U.S. out of there and replacing the federal apparatus with a Texan one. The military will be a major problem, but they're getting so used to troop drawdowns that they'll beat a gradual and orderly retreat over five years, declaring victory. Then you can convert all those army bases into training centers for a beefed-up Texas Rangers. And while you're at it, you can use the abandoned Johnson Space Center in Houston for an ambitious program to put a Texan on the moon before the decade is out. What patriotism that would inspire!
Then there are all those U.S. federal grants to get off the citizens' backs — over $35 billion of them in 2009 — for agriculture, education, energy, environmental protection, child care, highways, on and on. I know that as governor you lobbied vigorously to get even more of them — $47.5 million last year for undocumented immigrant health care, for instance, and $14.5 million for No Child Left Behind, the educational standards program which you've called "a direct assault on federalism." But that's history now, and your countrymen will forgive you. There's always a price for freedom, and I'm sure all those farmers and oilmen and students and poor people will be more than willing to pay it.
Then there's immigration, which will be interesting, since you'll have to deal with not only one border but all of them. On the southern side, you can be as ruthless as you choose — drive those undocumented Mexicans out, like your forefathers did in the 1830's. But how porous will you let your other borders be? Will you require passports and work permits for Oklahomans? There may be a great influx of unemployed people from the States, seeking work in the Promised Land. On the other hand, there may be plenty of Texans, many educated and prosperous, who'd rather live in America. Will you let them go?
And then there are all those nasty entitlements. At least for Social Security, you've got a grace period. Non-citizens who've paid into the program can claim benefits, as long as they don't live in interdicted countries like Cuba or Cambodia. Presuming Texas is not added to the list (and why should America treat its separated sibling harshly?), your seniors can milk the system for decades, giving you time to devise and implement your plan for privatization. With Medicare gone, you can get those insurance companies back in the game, generating thousands of jobs to boot. And for those too poor to pay, well, we all know that Texans have big hearts and will take care of their neighbors like they used to, in the days before the welfare state.
As for money, returning to the gold standard probably wouldn't work right now, prices being what they are. You could tie your currency (the Pecos bill?) to oil or, appropriately, natural gas. You could also swallow your pride and continue to use the U.S. dollar, like Ecuador does. You can always switch to China later.
There are a lot more questions, like whether and how to insure bank deposits when the FDIC withdraws, but I'm sure you'll meet each and every challenge with your can-do resourcefulness. Shoot, if Georgia (the country, that is) can go independent, Texas surely can.
So Rick, set your sights on a presidency that really counts. There's a bill before your legislature calling for a plebiscite on Texas nationhood. Forget the U.S.; turn your mighty campaign force toward your homeland, where you've never lost an election.
Future Mr. President, you're made for Texas, and Texas is made for you.

Friday, August 19, 2011


August 18, 2011

You can add one more country to the long, long list of repressive regimes in the world. It's not in the Middle East or Asia; it's right across The Pond.
Great Britain? How can this be?
Consider the reaction of the British government to the riots and looting that occurred in London, Birmingham, and other major cities last week: Mass arrests of suspected looters, many of them identified by the surveillance cameras ubiquitous in urban areas; 24/7 "speedy justice" trials, dishing out jail terms even to children and even for thefts as small as a couple bottles of water or packs of chewing gum; authorizing the police to quell disturbances with rubber bullets and water-cannon (evocative of that other Birmingham, on our shores); proposing to disable social networks (an eery parallel to the actions of despots in Egypt, Syria, and Iran); and just about the worst of the worst, evicting from public housing the families of the convicted.
Consider as well the rhetorical reaction. "This is criminality, pure and simple," said Prime Minister David Cameron when he returned to England early from his idyllic vacation in Tuscany to manage the situation. Days later, asked what those people thrown out of their homes would do then, Cameron replied, "They should have thought of that before they started burgling." The answer to the same question by no less an authority than London's housing commissioner himself, a man with the charmingly English name of Eric Pickles, was: "They could get a job."
The callousness, both in word and deed, is straight out of Dickens.
It's an exaggeration for me to lump Great Britain with the likes of Bahrain or Burma. To the credit of the police, with its long tradition of responding to crime temperately and usually without firearms, no deaths occurred in the mayhem. And yet the pronouncements and many of the actions of the government are disturbingly similar to those in truly repressive countries. Rather than seeking and addressing the root causes of the violence, they only serve to heighten the frustration and anger of those who feel cut off and boxed in.
And the denigration continues. In a speech on Monday, having had plenty of time for considered reflection, Cameron expanded his analysis beyond criminality, pure and simple. Calling the riots symptoms of "the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country" — and everybody knows just which parts he meant — he ticked off the causes: crimes without punishment, undisciplined schools, absentee fathers, and that other old standby, "moral relativism." Not a word of compassion, not a hint of awareness, not a sign of support.
Opposition leader Ed Miliband broadened the scope of British decrepitude to encompass "greedy, selfish, and immoral" bankers, phone hackers, and politicians — examples, he said, of "a me- first, take-what-you-can culture." Enough incrimination to go around, but still just incrimination.
He might also have included the 100,000 citizens who signed a government website's petition in support of the eviction proposal.
For indications of the "moral collapse" of British society, Cameron should look no further than his own nose. Any government built on retribution rather than healing, on blaming the poor for their poverty, and on denying the role of racism in policy and policing is itself in moral collapse.
We Americans have been through this ourselves often enough, and in many ways the attitudes of our leaders today mirror those of Britain's. Even President Obama, who from his early work in community organizing should be the first to go to bat for the poor, has extended his compassion no further down than to the middle class.
Cutbacks in social programs and job-creating public works are just beginning to affect the most vulnerable here. Lacking hope for the future, what more is there than to take what you can, when you can? One wonders if and when the patience of our own desperate will snap.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


August 4, 2011

Politics is supposed to be the art of compromise, but the end result of the debt-ceiling debacle was the most artless compromise in memory. Actually, it wasn't compromise at all, it was capitulation. Imagine: Both houses of Congress, and the President of what used to be called the Greatest Nation in the World, held hostage by a handful of Republicans, most of them just halfway into their first term.
It's like freshman hazing in reverse, forcing the upperclassmen to scrub the Floor of the House on their knees while chanting "Freshmen rule! Freshmen rule!" It's like taking away the football from the varsity team and making them play Kick the Can.
We haven't seen a tea party this mad since Alice discovered Wonderland. Indeed, you wish Lewis Carroll were around to make sense of it. Nobody else can.
All his zany characters, and then some, are in the House of the March Hare, with its chimneys shaping into ears and its dome being thatched with fur. You've got the Tea Partiers gaggled at one corner of the otherwise empty table, crying to Alice the Minority Leader, "No room! No room!" You've got Eric "Mad Hatter" Cantor, spouting riddles no one can solve. ("Why is taxation not a deficit-reducer?" is even more inscrutable than "Why is a raven like a writing-desk?")
You've got John Boehner, the beleaguered and weepy Hare of the House, dipping the Hatter's stopped watch into his tea.
And you've got Barack the neutered Dormouse, asleep on the table, where Hare and Hatter, as Carroll wrote, "were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and talking over its head. ‘Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse,' thought Alice, ‘only, as it's asleep, I suppose it doesn't mind.'" You also suppose the Dormouse didn't mind when they tried stuffing him head-first into the teapot.
In our narrative, other Wonderland characters turn up, like Queen of Hearts Michelle Bachmann ("Off with their heads!") and that Cheshire Cat, Ronald Reagan, whose smile still lingers long after the rest of him is gone.
"It's the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!" said Alice as she fled the scene in disgust and began nibbling on the mushroom that would make her just a foot tall. "Now, I'll manage better this time."
Let's hope so, for what adventures still await! Despite her diminished stature (Who'd have thought it before she fell down that rabbit-hole in 2008?), the ceiling cramps her head. All is small now and getting smaller, except for the Big, who keep getting bigger.
Washington has become a world more topsy-turvy than even Lewis Carroll could conceive. Instead of constructing an economic policy, Congress deconstructs it. Instead of setting comprehensive goals for the betterment and prosperity of the country and then rationally determining how to pay for them, the Congress, pulling the President along by the nose, goes nuts over spending cuts, regardless of the merit of the program. The Big Picture has shrunk to the head of a pin. And like the Mad Hatter's watch, there is no future: "It's always six o'clock now," he tells Alice; "It's always tea-time, and we've no time to wash the things between whiles."
It's self-absorption dissolving into pettiness. The so-called "debates" endlessly swirling around the debt-ceiling issue were goofier than the conversation at the Hatter's party.
And all the while, the economy sputters, the poor and sick are pushed from the table while the fat lick up the butter. "The common good" are words as meaningless as a stanza from "Jabberwocky."
Oh, my fur and whiskers!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


July 28, 2011

Here in New York, the heat wave finally broke on Monday, sending the temperature plummeting from Friday’s high of 104 degrees to a mere 83. It was time to resume the activities of daily living, like washing clothes and running the dryer, before the next debilitating wave hits.
I can’t bring myself to turn on the dryer with the thermometer in triple digits. Besides doing my small part to avert a city-wide power failure, it seems crazy to pump very hot air into very hot air. Riding on the elevated trains that emerge from underground in the Bronx, you still pass apartments with clothesline pulleys strung from one building to the next, shirts and skirts and underwear fluttering like international flags — and flags of surrender — in the breeze. Once symbols of tenement blight, these little solar-powered devices could make a comeback as a renewable energy source. Plus, your clothes smell so good when you pull them in, and no static cling. I may get one myself.
Heat brings out the New Yorker in New Yorkers. Another ancient summer tradition is the opening of fire hydrants for instant refreshment and water-sport. No matter that the little park right down the block has a delightful walk-under fountain spraying a cooling mist 24/7, and no matter that gushing hydrants discharge millions of gallons of water into the sewer and lower the water pressure, keeping both firefighters and people in upper-floor apartments from getting their own critical supply. Despite the threat of a thousand-dollar fine for tampering with hydrants — the law was enacted in the Giuliani days, part of his “quality of life” initiative — it is still common to see hydrants open full blast, kids with boogie boards surfing in the surge or deflecting it to douse passing cars. (Forget to close your windows and you’ve got a rolling swimming pool.)
When I moved to New York from drought-ridden Southern California in the early 1990’s, I was appalled by the waste of this precious element. In my first sweltering summer here, I was on Lafayette Street in Greenwich Village, where a stocky, bare-chested man with a can of Bud and a cigarette in one hand and a pipe-wrench in the other stood by a gushing hydrant. “Why are you wasting all this water?” I asked indignantly. “Because I want to,” he snarled. Welcome to New York.
Ever the Californian, I am still appalled, but I now think the better of openly challenging neighbors wielding wrenches. Instead, I call the city hot-line, and sooner or later some public employee will arrive to shut off the hydrant, fit it with a tamper-proof cap, and take the heat of hostility. That’s got to be the worst job in the world, and a futile one, too: A few minutes later, New York ingenuity successfully tampers with the tamper-proof cap, and the fun begins again.
In low-income areas like the South Bronx, where apartment air conditioning means one little window unit in the bedroom and one big electric bill at the end of the month, beating the heat becomes a community event. The spacious public parks are chockablock with people fully equipped for such occasions, lugging from their fourth-floor walk-ups barbecues, beach chairs, canopies, coolers, and recreation equipment. Dueling boom-boxes — rap and soul from one group, salsa and bachata from another, reggae from a third — all get along in a cacophonous melting-pot.
Also competing for the ear’s attention are the jingles of ice-cream trucks at streetside, one playing “The Entertainer,” another “Turkey in the Straw,” yet another the cloying Mister Softee theme. Many New Yorkers count the Mister Softee ditty as noise pollution because for some reason it keeps playing in their heads long after the truck has gone. In 2005, the City Council passed an ordinance permitting operators to play their jingles only when the truck is in motion — a measure that, like the hydrant law, is just laughed off.
Watching New Yorkers cope with oppressive heat is watching a wonderful cultural phenomenon — and the next opportunity arrives on Friday. Neighbors, get out your wrenches!


July 20, 2011

The lone Democrat in the New York State Senate to vote against the Marriage Equality Act on June 24 is from the South Bronx. Ruben Diaz, Sr. — Pentecostal minister, hot-headed demagogue, one of those colorful characters once common in New York politics, and in the still-common dynastic tradition, father of the current Bronx Borough President — took his parting shot during the floor debate before the vote: “God, not Albany, has settled the definition of marriage a long time ago.”
There were surely other legislators who secretly agreed with his premise, if not his rhetoric, and yet finally voted the other way, persuaded by the powerful gay-rights lobby, promises of political pull by the popular governor Andrew Cuomo, and the emotional pull of homosexual family members and friends. Brooklyn Democratic Senator Carl Kruger, for example, was ostracized by the gay nephew of his girlfriend for voting against a similar same-sex marriage bill two years ago. According to the New York Times, his colleague, Democratic Majority Leader John Sampson, told him, “When everything else is gone, all you have left is family.” This time he voted yes.
“I don’t need this,” Kruger told him. “It has gotten personal now.”
Personal indeed, and it goes right to the top. President Obama, long an advocate of civil unions and a critic of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal benefits to same-sex couples, continues to hold the belief that the word “marriage” means a man-woman union. He now says that his views are “evolving,” though he refuses to explain how and why.
I think I can understand his dilemma; it is a conflict between the public and the personal. Like the president, I support the complete equality afforded by measures such as California’s domestic partnership law, and yet, presumably like the president, I personally believe that marriage connotes a heterosexual union. What I don’t support is what amounts to an official endorsement of any particular life-style, either opposite-sex or same-sex, the public approbation of an essentially private activity.
That’s why I’m in favor of disestablishing marriage, just as the First Amendment disestablished religion. A pioneering state like California could replace civil marriage with a universal domestic partnership contract open to any two consenting adults without regard to gender and without the implication of sexual relations. The question of what marriage is and who may participate in it would thus be left to individuals, religious bodies, and other social groups. The state’s only concerns would be the witnessing and disposition of the contract and the protection and encouragement of stable family relationships, however they are configured, through the rights and benefits secured by the contract.
Over the last fifty years, government’s involvement — intrusion, really — in the realm of personal relationships have steadily waned. As courts identified and refined the right to privacy, laws prohibiting all manner of consensual sexual relations both within and outside of marriage were struck down, the adverse legal consequences of out-of-wedlock birth were eliminated, the exemption for spousal rape was removed, and non-consummation as grounds for nullity was obviated by no-fault divorce.
Changing social mores have compelled states to accord varying degrees of legal status to forms of family configurations other than marriage. Depending on the jurisdiction, unmarried parents are now held to the same responsibilities of child support as married couples, adoption has been extended to single people and same-sex couples, and privileges similar or identical to those formerly reserved to the married are given to cohabiting widowed persons over age 62 (to preserve survivorship benefits), and even blood-relatives.
Today, the preferential legal status of marriage, however the term is construed, is de facto being done away with by modern family law; marriage now is widely treated as one form of protectable family relationship among others. So why not take the next step?
A state like California could easily become marriage-neutral by abolishing its marriage statutes and folding heterosexual unions into its existing domestic partnership law.
The advantages to this approach are many. First, it would make clear by terminology that government’s fundamental interest lies not in the presumed sexual activity of the partners but in nurturing and strengthening stable personal and family relationships. Second, it would obviate the valid argument made by gay-marriage advocates that equal but separate marriage and “civil union” laws create implicit class distinctions. Third, it would terminate government’s entanglement in the problems of definition. Finally, these contracts could also be opened to a wider range of committed couples, such as two celibate friends or unmarried siblings who share their lives and property and deserve the privileges of any married couple, gay or straight, but who would never want to be considered “married.”
In 1765 — simpler times, indeed — the English legal scholar William Blackstone wrote: “Our law considers marriage in no other light than as a civil contract. The holiness of the matrimonial state is left entirely to ecclesiastical law.”
In a closed-door meeting before the New York Senate vote, Governor Cuomo reportedly convinced wavering key Republicans with the exhortation, “Their love is worth the same as your love.”
Diaz based his argument on God; Cuomo, on love. I side with Blackstone. Neither legislatures nor courts should meddle in those holy realms.


June 21, 2011

It was a month of milestones for the Catholics of the South Bronx. On May 28, Rev. Thomas Fenlon, pastor of St. Augustine Church, celebrated 50 years as a priest. On June 3, Our Lady of Victory Church celebrated 100 years as a parish. On June 18, St. Augustine School graduated its 150th annual class. Happy occasions, each tinged with sadness and uncertainty.
Father Fenlon held his anniversary Mass in the historic Immaculate Conception chapel at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, on the Hudson River in the upscale Riverdale section of the Bronx. Over 800 people attended, including 150 relatives converging from all parts of the nation and the world. He rented buses to bring parishioners from churches where he’d served, in the Bronx, Harlem, and upstate Newburgh. After the two-hour ceremony, animated by St. Augustine School’s African dance troupe and the church’s Gospel Choir, he threw an outdoor catered reception with an ethnic balance of Latin and soul food, good wines and kegs of beer, stations serving ice cream and Italian ices, and even face-painting for the kids. The DJ played both bachatas and the Electric Slide. All this cost him plenty, but he spent gladly and lavishly, not for himself but for the people he loved through half a century of ministry among the poor.
He would have preferred to celebrate in his parish church, but the once-magnificent 115-year-old structure was shut two years ago as unsafe. The 300-member congregation now worships in the school auditorium, a contraction that may foreshadow its dissolution in the New York Archdiocese’s next round of parish closings coming up next year. Founded in 1849, when the area was mostly farmland, St. Augustine’s served the South Bronx through urban growth and urban decay; it may not be there to serve the new waves of immigrants coming to occupy the thousands of housing units going up just blocks away.
A sesquicentennial should be cause for rejoicing, but the graduation ceremony at St. Augustine School was cause for tears — the 150th class was also its last.
In the heyday of Catholic education throughout in the first half of the last century, up to a thousand students, first through eighth grades, packed the classrooms each year, drawing from the Irish, German, and Italian families that then characterized the neighborhood. As the demographics changed to largely non-Catholic African-Americans, the mission of the school broadened to serve not just Catholics but the whole community, a refuge of quality and discipline amidst the corruption and chaos of the public school system.
In a sense, the school was a victim of its own success. When charter schools, publicly financed yet independently run, began opening in the South Bronx a decade ago (many explicitly owing their educational philosophy of academic rigor, classroom order, and even uniforms, to the Catholic model — everything except the religion and the tuition) enrollment at St. Augustine’s began to erode; this year there were barely 200 students. Rather than committing to maintain the Catholic presence in the neighborhood through active recruitment and a sliding-scale tuition policy, the archdiocese evacuated.
In a last touch of irony, a charter school down the hill, with a surfeit of students and a dearth of space, will rent the building as a second campus.
The ceremony for the final 12 graduates was somber but inflected with that most absurd of the theological virtues, hope. “God has something in mind,” principal Cathryn Trapp told the disheartened handful of parents and parishioners in attendance. “God is working. We may have nothing, and yet we have it all.”
The centenary dinner for Our Lady of Victory, a parish less than a mile northwest of St. Augustine’s, was also bittersweet. Beneath the accolades and the merengue music was everybody’s realization that one hundred years marked only memory, not expectation. Like St. Augustine’s, this parish, with its charming little church on Webster Avenue that saw the transformation of its neighborhood from clusters of row houses and modest apartment buildings to massive public housing projects, became a satellite of a larger parish two years ago — a portent of impending demise.
When the South Bronx was at its worst, amidst the fires and the drugs and the violence that made it a worldwide symbol of urban desolation, the Catholic Church stood firm. Young priests, filled with the spirit of the civil rights movement and the Second Vatican Council’s liberating call for justice for the poor, spent their lives here, tirelessly preaching the Good News of human dignity and organizing the community at large to address issues of discrimination, housing, hunger, addiction, and guns. Catholic schools sheltered children from the streets and prepared them for good colleges and good careers. During that time, the archdiocese channeled contributions from its wealthy parishes into the Church’s ministry to the inner city.
Now these priests, after 50 years or more of service, are leaving the scene, with few to replace them. The financial lifeline once thrown to impoverished parishes and schools by the archdiocese is being hauled in, citing “fiscal prudence.” Milestones are now millstones. Just as the Bronx is springing back, the institution of the Catholic Church is beating a retreat.
But the remnant remains at work, braced by that absurd theological virtue of hope.


June 14, 2011

I met Anthony Weiner once. Well, I sort of met him. In 2005, when he was battling the Bronx’s native son, Fernando Ferrer, for the Democratic mayoral nomination, the Brooklyn/Queens Congressman made a brief foray into enemy territory to appear at a rally staged by South Bronx Churches, the local community-organizing arm of the Industrial Areas Foundation. He came in late and left early. Standard IAF practice is to allow politicians exactly three minutes to speak. Just as he was cranking up, a little Puerto Rican woman approached and tapped him on the shoulder: “Your time’s up,” she whispered. “I’m not used to shutting up so soon,” he laughed, and the crowd laughed with him. The IAF knew the value of Twittering long before Twitter existed. Weiner would later become adapt — or inept — with the Tweet.
He was then subjected to the standard IAF practice of demanding yes-or-no answers to the questions on their agenda: Do you support our proposals on education reform? housing for the homeless? gun control? Like almost everybody I’ve seen in this hot-seat, Weiner started off with, “I’ll answer your question, but first I’d like to say ...” — whereupon the leader would interrupt: “Just answer the question, Congressman: yes or no?”
At first baffled by the whole process, he learned quickly. He answered yes to everything, then excused himself: “I hate to go, but I’ve got another meeting in Brooklyn. You’re doing a great service to the community.” Exiting by a side aisle, he paused only to shake hands with people along the way, and grabbed mine for a New York second. So I sort of I met Anthony Weiner.
As far as I know, the Bronx never saw him again. Ferrer won the primary and Weiner went back to his job, and his other activities, in Washington.
The IAF likes to put politicians in their place as the servants, public servants, they ought to be — it’s good for them to experience a little embarrassment once in a while. Unlike many bigwigs that I’ve seen at these meetings, flush-faced and seething at the constrictions imposed on them, Weiner seemed to take it all in good humor, aware of the irony and also aware of the power of these usually powerless people to make or break him at the polling booth. I respected him for that.
While I never became a Friend or even a Follower of Weiner, I found his talk-show appearances refreshing — a guy with Brooklyn brashness who’d gleefully bash big oil, big ag, big tobacco, big everything except big government — an unapologetic liberal who dogged the right at every turn. He was often outlandish — I guess we should have suspected something right there — but some of his pranks bordered on genius. In 2009, in the midst of the health-care frenzy, he simultaneously introduced two bills, one to abolish Medicare and the other to extend Medicare to everyone. It was an unforgettable stroke of legislative irony; he designed those bills not for passage but to expose the absurd contradiction of supporting a single payer for the elderly and opposing it for the rest.
When the news broke last week of Weiner’s Twittering trysts, my first thought was: “Uh-oh, he’s a goner. Now all we have left is Dennis Kucinich.”
Thus far, Weiner has resisted the pressure from most of his party, including President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, to resign. After the customary rehab and the less-than-customary self-flagellation, he could hold on to his seat, hang low, so to speak, continue to cast votes toward the liberal cause, and let his term mercifully expire.
In any case, whether he quits or stays, he’s finished in politics. People will forgive adulterers — look at Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, though the fate of the latter remains to be seen — and they’ll sometimes even forgive paid sex — look at Eliot Spitzer, disgraced governor turned CNN commentator — but they’ll never forgive a pornophile, especially when the porn is of himself. A twit on a Tweet. That’s about as creepy as it gets.
But who knows? Weiner and Jon Stewart were college buddies. What a sidekick that guy would make!
I can see it now ...

Thursday, May 26, 2011


May 26, 2011

One of the questions most frequently asked of urban beekeepers is: Where do you get your bees? Do they just fly into your yard?
Sometimes they do. A surprising number of people I meet tell stories of coming home from work one fine spring afternoon to find an undulating ball of honeybees nestled on a nearby tree-branch or fence. Seeing this phenomenon, some go into a panic and call 911; others go into a reverie and call their children out to marvel. In either case, by the time a beekeeper or — horrors! — an exterminator arrives, or by the time the family looks the next morning, the bees may have already flown away.
It’s the passing of a swarm.
Swarming is the honeybees’ way of propagating their species. When a colony becomes large, the bees — tens of thousands of sterile female workers, a few hundred male drones, and a single fertile female, the queen — raise another queen. The colony then divides into two groups, one staying put with their new queen and the other flying off with the old one to find another home. The swarm will settle temporarily on branch or fence or pole or wall while several hundred of the most experienced worker bees scout the vicinity for a suitable and safe cavity to inhabit, most often a hollow tree.
Despite centuries of study, entomologists still don’t understand exactly how each bee determines whether to stay home or to swarm, but they are coming to know how a swarm finds its new digs. Cornell professor Thomas B. Seeley recently summarized the research in his book, Honeybee Democracy. Contrary to the common belief that the queen bee is the autocrat of the colony, Seeley’s experiments show that the swarm makes a collective decision about where to live. The scout bees, having examined many possible dwellings for location and size, return to the swarm and, through the same kind of dance-like movements used to direct their sisters to sources of nectar and pollen, communicate their conclusions about the desirability of each prospect. Other bees then go to look at the options, and gradually the swarm forms a consensus on which one to take, flies off, and moves in. (Seeley discussed this process with NPR’s annoyingly flippant science correspondent Robert Krulwich on Tuesday’s Morning Edition; you can find the interview at
Beekeepers can influence the swarm’s decision by taking it to an empty hive — a comfy, ready-made home which the bees are usually (but not always) most happy to accept.
But back to our FAQ. Failing the good fortune of capturing a swarm, where do beekeepers get their bees?
More often than not, they buy them in what are called “packages” — several thousand worker bees culled from strong colonies, weighed out in two-pound lots, and placed in a shoe-box-sized cage with a mated queen in a separate little cage. You spray the bees with sugar-water to keep them temporarily flightless and busy licking the sweet stuff off each other, open the package, dump the sticky clump into an empty hive, release the queen from her cage, close up the box, and walk away. Within a week the package of disparate bees has become a functioning colony, the queen laying a thousand eggs a day, the workers foraging for nectar and pollen to feed themselves and the babies.
Usually these packages are made up by large-scale honeybee farmers, predominantly in the South, and are either sent directly through the mail or shipped by truck to a central location for pickup.
Having lost two of my three colonies to this year’s long and brutal winter, I ordered two packages from a beekeeping cooperative which supplies equipment, bees, and instruction to both aspiring and experienced beekeepers in New York City.
The co-op’s truckload of packages from Georgia was delivered to their warehouse on Flatbush Avenue in downtown Brooklyn one morning last week. How was I to get my bees to their new neighborhood in the Bronx? Fight weekday traffic and risk a ticket for double-parking while I dashed into the warehouse? Nah. These Southern transplants would get around just like most New Yorkers do — by subway.
At the warehouse, conveniently located just steps away from a station with direct service to the Bronx, I sprayed the bees with water for hydration, zipped them up in duffel bags, and took them underground for their first New York adventure.
At nine in the morning, the subway car was packed with commuters heading to work in Manhattan. Several people looked up from their seats at this guy with two big bags slung across his shoulders, jostling for standing room. A recorded voice came through the loudspeaker with the routine message: “Remember, if you see something, say something. Report suspicious packages immediately.”
Yikes! Visions of the transit police swooping down and finding ten thousand stinging insects in my possession (a type of terrorist attack not unheard of in history; the Roman army threw bags of bees into enemy lines) made me shudder. But the gods were with me, the trip was smooth, and in an hour and a half two new colonies were ensconced in their homes in my Bronx apiary.
And that’s how this urban beekeeper got his bees.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


May 6, 2011

The bus making its way through the South Bronx on Monday was unusually alive with chatter.
"Obama got Osama!" a gray-bearded man in a Yankees jacket gloated loudly to his seat-mate. "That's poetry!"
"Beautiful," the other replied. "I heard they threw his body into the sea. Now he sleeps with the fishes."
"Ha! He smells so bad even the fishes won't eat him."
A middle-aged lady in the seat ahead piped up in Spanish. "He killed so many people. Now he's tasting his own medicine."
"No me gusta, the way they just took him out," said a young woman across the aisle. "It's just more killing. They shoulda captured him. I wanted to see what he had to say. Maybe he was sorry."
"Too late, baby," a man in a wheelchair said from the front. "He gone for good now. He gave all those people at Ground Zero hell on earth for a few hours, but he's gonna burn forever."
A well-dressed woman sitting next to me handed me a pamphlet. On the cover, yellow and red flames licked around the title: "Hellfire: Is It Part of Divine Justice?"
"Read this," she said to me softly. "Go to your bible and see for yourself."
I glanced at the tract, from the Jehovah's Witnesses. "Have you ever seen someone tortured?" it began. "We hope not. Deliberate torture is sickening and abhorrent. ... Many religions teach that God tortures sinners in an eternal hellfire. ... Would a God of love inflict torture that even humans with any measure of decency find revolting? ... Even if someone perpetrated extreme wickedness for his whole lifetime, would everlastingtorment be a just punishment? No."
"God is love," she whispered. "How can there be a hell?"
A man leaned forward from the seat behind us. "The truth is, nobody really knows what happens in the next world. All we know for sure is about this world, and I'm glad Osama's out of the way here. He can't do anything more to us now."
The graybeard overheard. "Oh yeah? We have a saying in Puerto Rico: ‘You cut off the head of a snake and two heads grow back.' He's got people all over the world ready to take his place."
"I heard he has a hundred children," the middle-aged lady said in Spanish.
An African woman in a headscarf, cradling a baby on her lap, stared blankly out the window.
"They shoulda just forgot about him," the man in the wheelchair said. "Let the sleeping dog lie. Things was just settling down. The people in Egypt got their revolution without blowing anything up, and they was saying Osama's ideas are stupid and he's a has-been. Now we're on red alert again, that's what I heard. We're back to where we was after 9/11. Before, they just had a man, now they got a saint. Who knows what they'll do now?"
"I don't care," the man behind me said. "We'll get them too. I'm proud to be an American, and I'm glad Obama got him."
"Jerome Avenue," the driver called, pulling up to the stop. Passengers got off and on; the spontaneous social network traveling through the South Bronx changed friends.
"I found a nice apartment in Queens," a woman told her companion. "I'm moving next week. It's closer to my job, and it's more quiet there. Quiet and peaceful."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


March 31, 2011

On the cover of The New Yorker magazine for March 14, a drawing by Barry Blitt depicts Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, as a scarecrow, dressed in military finery, stuffed with straw, and mounted on a stick, with a desert landscape below. Flying around the scarecrow is a flock of white doves, several of them pulling tufts of straw protruding from its arms and head, another unraveling the braids on the uniform, gathering nesting material for spring.
The drawing is entitled, "Hope is the thing with feathers."
How quickly hawks snatch doves in flight, scattering their feathers in the wind.
Barely a month ago, as Blitt was pitching his idea to The New Yorker's editors, it seemed to much of the watching world that the near-miracle of peaceful revolution wrought in Tunisia and Egypt would replicate itself in Libya. Mass protests calling for Qaddafi's resignation were met with a waffling similar to that of those aged dictators to his east and west: a show of force followed by the promise of concessions. Qaddafi's brutal crackdown against the demonstrators in mid-February shocked even his own government, with two of his air force pilots flying their French-built Mirage jets to asylum in Malta and several of his ambassadors and diplomatic staff resigning their posts.
A few more days of demonstration might have toppled the regime. But for reasons as yet unclear, the center of nonviolent opposition did not hold. Disaffected military personnel seized arms and munitions in outlying regions and persuaded some of the citizens to join them in battle. Quick as that, protesters had become rebels; civil resistance had become civil war.
Thus allowed to play the game the way he liked it, Qaddafi set about smashing the revolt with attacks from air and ground — and almost immediately drew much of Europe into the vortex of violence. This crazy-as-a-fox colonel had been pushing the buttons of the West for 40 years, now threatening, now cozying up, back and forth — first a Communist and then an anti- Communist, first a terrorist and then an anti-terrorist. Having blown up the Pan Am plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 and then having initiated a chemical and nuclear weapons program, he turned right around and apologized, proffering reparations to the Lockerbie survivors and dismantling his WMD's, hoodwinking none other than George W. Bush in 2004 to rescind Libya's terrorist status, thus clearing the path for multi-billion-dollar arms deals with France, Italy, Germany, and Russia, among others. It is those very weapons, so readily supplied to a country lacking a single external threat, that he's now using against the rebels, and that the U.S. and NATO are now firing their missiles at to take out.
So here we go again.
Another megalomaniac Little Caesar twirling the great powers around his finger. Another internal conflict inflated into an international one. Another military intervention in the name of protecting civilians with so-called "pinpoint bombing" that inevitably results in the death of civilians they are bombing to protect. Another commitment to topple — or not to topple, can't get quite clear on that one yet — the dictator with only the vaguest knowledge of who will take his place. Another rejection of Colin Powell's doctrine that every entrance strategy must have an exit strategy.
And thus far, despite it all, the latest Little Caesar remains, laughing at the world while his country goes up in smoke.
How can this be, and so soon, too, with Iraq so fresh in the mind?
President Obama's defense of military action in Libya, outlined in his address to the nation on Monday, is based on would-have's and could-have's: "We knew if we waited one more day, Benghazi — a city nearly the size of Charlotte — could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. ... A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya's borders .... The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship .... A failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America."
Preemptive war is a war of would-have's.
But since we're speculating, there is another set of would- have's to consider: What would have happened had the Libyan resistance remained nonviolent? What would have happened had the militants been left without external assistance? Would those democratic impulses dawning across the region have been strengthened or diminished had the "international community" opted against force?
Oh yes, and one could-it-be: Could it yet be that in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and even Palestine, those things with feathers will continue to pick at their respective scarecrows?