A Cause for Optimism about Democracy

I thought I had possibly dreamed this, but apparently not.  

Our president, the man who can’t seem to stop bragging about his historically large 106,000 vote Electoral College mandate (take those close votes in three states and flip them and Hillary wins), was rebuked 98-0 by a viciously divided senate the other day.

It happened like this.  He met with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin last week in Finland.  The strongman apparently easily lifted our large president over his head several times during their secret meeting, greatly impressing our great leader.   After the meeting Putin was wearing the smile of the cat with the canary in its mouth and our president seemed even more childish, confused and foolish than usual.   Putin apparently asked that he be allowed, in return for granting the Mueller team access to twelve recently indicted Russians, to interrogate a similar number of American diplomats including the former American ambassador to Russia.  Our president said he would consider it.   The Senate, bitter partisans who can agree on nothing, immediately voted 98-0 to “shut the fuck up, you imbecilic asshole!”

I find a reason for optimism in that unanimous vote by hacks for both supremely corrupt pay-to-play parties.  There is a limit, ladies and gentlemen, to what someone who has contempt for democracy, fairness and even honesty can be allowed to do, even if he’s the almost unanimously elected president of the United States.  I like to think so anyway.

Here’s a short article about the vote.



Healthcare as a human right

The radical right is consistent, most of the time, I have to say that for them.   They latch on to something like “Right to Life” (no abortion under any circumstances) or “Right to Work” (the legal right of the employer to fire your ass at any time, with or without cause) and ride it to the end.   Their disciplined relentlessness is impressive, even if it’s not always good for democracy, people, animals, plants, children, old people, babies, the environment, health, human dignity, human survival.   The important thing is that they give their supporters a rallying cry to scream, a cry that never changes, if it works.   That these phrases may not bear much scrutiny as ideas in the marketplace of ideas is not the point.  Winning is the point, the only point.

As Republican icon Ronald Reagan said, either being pithy or already in the first throes of dementia: “the right to life ends at birth.”   “Right to Life” means that the right of a fetus to be born is absolute, more absolute than a mother’s right not to die from complications of pregnancy, far greater than the right of a fourteen year old girl not to have to go through the trauma of giving birth to her rapist’s baby.   Like every right extended, except to wealth that has perpetual life (corporate folks, persons just like you and me except they never die) it terminates at a reasonable time.   In the case of an unwanted baby, the right to life ends as soon as the poor bastard is born, breathing air and crying.   When the unwanted child is born society says “you’re on your own now, motherfucker, we protected you for nine months, your own mother wanted to kill you, but we saved you from that murderous bitch.  Now get the fuck out and get a job, asshole. And try not to stink so much… can’t you change that sagging diaper already?  No self-respect, you little shitass…”   Nothing to see here.

The way America’s wealthiest and least scrupulous organized themselves to make sure Obama was not able to get bipartisan support for anything, especially his hated plan to give access to healthcare to more Americans; priceless.  Jane Mayer reminds us that when Ted Kennedy’s death in 2009 left a vacancy in the Senate, a flood of dark money was unloosed immediately before the special election in Massachusetts.   After that election unknown Republican Scott Brown would sit in the seat occupied by a Democrat (a Kennedy, in fact, Ted took over JFK’s seat in 1962) from time immemorial.   Read all about it here.  

The Koch influence machine (the Kochtopus, as admirers dubbed it)  had secretly pulled off a stunning, history defying upset in a blue state that hadn’t had a Republican senator in generations.   Wikipedia is pretty even-handed about the invisible tentacles of the Kochtopus:

As of January 8, 2010, Martha Coakley raised over US$5.2 million in total, and had $937,383 cash on hand. Scott Brown had $367,150 cash on hand. Brown spent $450,000 on television advertisements, while Coakley spent $1.4million.[99] A week before the general election, Brown raised $1.3million from over 16,000 donors in a 24-hour fund-raising effort. Reports also indicated that Brown raised an average of $1 million per day the week prior to the election.[100]

The effect of this historic upset was that the Senate, with Brown, was now 59-41 Democratic, meaning Obama’s majority in the Senate, although impressive, was no longer filibuster-proof.   The loophole now existed for the entitled vulture class to defeat the hated president’s hated, albeit mostly conservative-think-tank-created, healthcare proposal.   The compromise that became known as the Affordable Care Act, when it was passed, had many, many faults, none of them ever fixed.  The ACA contained a few huge improvements over America’s past ruthless health insurance regime, the biggest being the abolition of the vicious “pre-existing condition” loophole that allowed health insurance companies to only insure people who were good bets not to need massively expensive healthcare.   The business of America is business, how it is fair that some fuck with cancer expects to get all those expensive treatments and drugs paid by insurance?   Pre-existing condition, totally unfair to make the insurer pay!

Some socialist types, and others, believe that included among the rights of citizenship in a wealthy society is the right to decent, affordable health care, administered through a publicly supervised health care system.   Americans pay by far the highest prices for our health care, far more than the citizens of other wealthy, industrialized nations, yet our health outcomes are no better than most places, except, arguably, at the very top end of American medical care.   Wealthy patients can always seek out and buy that top high-end healthcare, if they want to pay for it (and why not? they deserve it).  

The rest of us believe we have a right to not die of the many preventable and treatable diseases that are always stalking us.  A “right to life” if you will.   50,000 or more dead Americans every year who die because their only access to health care is an emergency room where the ER doc will say to a family member “oh shit, if only we’d seen him two years ago…”   These unfortunate American dead and their loved ones unwittingly make a sacrifice for all of us, a small price to pay for the freedom of eternal, legally created “persons” to live in perfect liberty, enjoying maximum profits protected by a friendly government, with the populist cover of a manipulated mob of confused, angry, powerless people chanting “USA!   USA!!!”.

I get my health care through the problematic Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  I can tell you dozens of ways the law sucks, and have written about many of them here (click the category Obamacare to read ’em).   Top of my list is the difficulty of actually finding care in this corrupt, lobbyist-written regime.   After years of rabid Republican opposition to the law, and more than fifty attempts to repeal it in its entirety (check ’em out), some elected Democrats are organizing to fight back with the hated “public option” (something that already exists and works pretty well for millions of Americans 65 and older, as well as in most other wealthy nations).   Seventy Congressional Democrats have apparently formed a caucus to discuss lowering the age of Medicare to cover even that fucking unwanted baby who selfishly insists on its right to care after the government has already zealously protected its ungrateful little ass for nine long months.

Here’s the petty detail that bugs me today, as I work on rehabbing my aching knees.  It took me about a month to find and get an appointment with a sports medicine doctor for a referral to Physical Therapy (PT).   A rep for my health-insurance company (think of how fucking asinine it is to give people health care via private, profit-driven insurance companies…) assured me that referrals are no longer required by their company for things like PT.   Every place I contacted about PT disagreed.  Obviously, they said, you have to have a doctor’s referral before we can give you PT.  Made sense.   I finally was able to see the sports medicine doctor who immediately referred me for PT.   Then it was a few weeks of searching, not getting calls back from the “in-network” PT offices where I left  messages, until I finally hobbled over to a place I could walk to that accepted my insurance and where I could have PT.    

Note this:  every week I searched, without finding service, every obstacle I had to crawl over to get to the next step in finding treatment, was money in the pocket of the insurance company.  Multiply my search by a few thousand searches, by a million, and you begin to get the idea of how lucrative it is to make this basic of medical care, finding and seeing a doctor in your “network”, so difficult.

There was one last hoop to jump through on my ailing knees, now weeks and weeks, months, in fact, after they’d become acutely painful.  I’d have do be “evaluated” for PT for my knees, by doing a half squat with my back against the wall of the PT room.  I did the half squat and was told now all I had to do was go home and wait to see how many sessions my insurance company would approve.  You see, the doctor is not the one who decides what’s medically necessary, nor is the physical therapist, it is someone at your insurance company who decides exactly what course of treatment, under the current law, you are entitled to.  Fair is fair, they’re the ones paying, you dig.

They decided I was entitled to seven sessions of PT, twice a week.  If you do the math, the approved PT would last just over three weeks.  Not much time to fix a problem that had taken a year or more to get this bad, now I just had to wait until they got the go ahead from my insurance company.  A week later I was able to start PT.  It is slow going, physical therapy.   No long-festering physical ailment can be cured in seven sessions.   After session six I asked the receptionist at the PT place what I had to do to get more sessions.  Another referral, she told me.   I contacted the office of the sports doctor I’d seen for a second time a week or so earlier.  After session seven of PT I was told that once the referral arrived I would have to be re-evaluated.

Stand against the wall in the room where you’ve completed your seven sessions of PT and squat as far down as your creaky knees will take you, then just go home, without further treatment of any kind, and wait.   In about a week, if all goes well, they would get the OK from the insurance company, if your particular insurance policy authorized more physical therapy for you.  Then, the following week you could continue your PT, with only, at most, a short one or two week gap.   You see, it’s impossible to determine if you’ll need more than seven sessions until you’ve completed seven sessions, right?  That’s just basic logic, right?   No matter what your fucking know-it-all sports medicine doctor might have to say about it (the rehab could take several months of hard work, she told me sympathetically).  No matter what.

God fucking bless America, boys and girls!

Book review preview: Dark Money by Jane Mayer

first draft of my first book review since elementary school:

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,  Jane Mayer (January 2016)

Dark money is tax deductible, it turns out.  If you anonymously contribute a very large sum of money to a political cause, funneling the cash through a non-profit corporation, in the worst case scenario you get a gigantic tax deduction against your income.  If you advance your political agenda with a skillful bet on the right politicians, you can reap an even higher return on your tax deductible investment. Win-win, if you know what I’m sayin’.

It is hard to empathize with somebody you will never share an experience with.   Being born into generations of vast, inherited, well-invested wealth means you have no need to ever make contact with the great unwashed, heading home in crowded subway cars with their grubby little problems.   The world of the super-wealthy, the top 0.01%, is hard for the rest of us to picture.  It is apparently also very, very challenging to be that rich in ways the rest of us cannot begin to imagine.  

Some indomitable men in this tiny group of the very richest, very best American families, led by the secretive Charles Koch, autocratic son of a founding John Birch Society member, realized that in order to eventually own literally everything in America, without interference from parasites of every stripe, they would need to control the government that was trying to put tyrannical limits on their freedom.   Charles Koch’s wealth, now highly diversified, was originally, and mainly, from oil refining.  His family had a process for refining the cheapest, dirtiest, source, the most energy intensive to extract, and selling it for much higher profit than their competitors could.   The EPA, in particular, was a bone in the reclusive billionaire’s throat.   Government was the only thing standing in the way of virtually unlimited profits.

It would take thirty or more years for Charles Koch’s radical agenda to yield a bumper crop (The Year of Trump), but the beneficiaries would be very happy with the results and well-reimbursed for their tax deductible political spending over the decades: abolished profit-killing “environmental” and “safety” regulations, pushed for a shrunken, mistrusted government of severely limited powers, decimated labor unions, “primaried” all moderates out of office and out of politics, ended ‘class warfare’ decidedly, redistributed wealth steeply upward to themselves.  Along the way they crafted and sold a larger, widely accepted public narrative that justifies all this as right and proper, even highly moral and exceptionally American.  It isn’t that all this pollution is doing anything bad to the environment, you understand, fellow sophisticated skeptics, it’s a conspiracy by rich liberal eco-hypocrites to kill jobs using fake science to do so.

Dark Money, by the  great Jane Mayer, pulls together a million details of how and what this tiny, infinitely wealthy group did to ensure that their privilege is preserved in perpetuity.  Mayer details the more than thirty year strategic campaign, mucho, mucho dinero very productively spent in a brilliant, deliberate, coordinated, disciplined long game of lobbying, swaying public perceptions and spending fortunes to put people in power who would advance their cause.  This largely successful campaign to bypass electoral democracy and take control of the government directly, by other means, is finally paying off big time.   All perfectly legal, these extraordinary means, the Supreme Court said so in a series of indisputable 5-4 decisions.   Extra-democratically grabbing power makes it sound so harsh, so dirty, almost fascistic, like a tiny, secretive clique imposing their will on the other 99.9%.   Let us simply say, these intrepid protectors of the 0.01% deployed their oceans of money very wisely.    

A lot of the world Jane Mayer lays out is sickening stuff, but, damn does she lay it all out.  It is one skill to be a good researcher, to dig up and read everything and to find and master a lot of interesting, complicated material, selecting and organizing the most crucial of it.  Being able to weave the raw materials into a flowing, compelling narrative is another skill entirely.   Reading a book like Dark Money it hits me over and over — this writer is really fucking smart.  I think it’s the sense that, in addition to the book being beautifully written, everything you are reading has been set so perfectly in context by everything you’ve learned to that point in the story.  It is an immensely complicated, yet, on another level, elementally simple, story.  Jane Mayer tells it clearly, smoothly and with virtually no editorializing.  I offer this example, as a placeholder for a more detailed review I will complete at a future time.

Mayer describes the great revelation Charles Koch and his friends had, along with a major change of strategy, after David Koch badly lost his vice-presidential bid in 1980.   Since Koch ran for vice president, rather than president, he could use a loophole in the law to legally finance his campaign with as much of his own unlimited cash as he chose to spend.  One of the planks of his vice presidential platform was abolishing all limits on campaign spending, (which is now the law of the land via the partisan 5-4 Citizens United ruling).   When the Koch platform, skewed toward the freedom of the wealthiest to acquire more while shrinking oppressive government and its socialistic programs to insignificance,  got less than 1% of the vote (ironic– he probably drew 100% of the top 1% vote) the Koch brothers [1] (along with their allies from the best of the top 0.01%) understood that their ideas were too unpopular to ever prevail by electoral means.  

They began to set about influencing public discourse by different means.  They drew up a long-term battle plan, with the help of a cunning graduate student named Fink.  They created a network of influence and public relations operations. They funded prestigious think tanks, numerous non-profits, endowed academic chairs, sponsored courses and student societies in the colleges across America, eventually found their way onto Ivy League campuses (to correct the distressing left-leaning tendency of these influential institutions), unleashed an army of lobbyists, paid advocates, psychological warfare experts like wordsmith-for-hire like Frank Luntz (attack Global Warming “myth” by attacking the non-unanimous scientific consensus– Luntz later recanted this bullshit).   They advised political candidates, funded their campaigns, took over state houses, got odious laws and regulations overturned, drafted model laws in corporate/legislative partnerships that advanced their cause, vetted Supreme Court picks, created and funded non-profits for specific political attacks, like the Swift Boat Attackers, funded the ‘grassroots’ radically anti-Obama Tea Party, and so on.  36 years of hard, dedicated, singleminded work later, et, voila!

Fred Koch, father of all of four battling Koch brothers, like Fred Trump, father of our current president, was a brutal, demanding, loveless autocrat and an admirer of Mr. Hitler who shared many of Hitler’s views on how things should run and who deserved to rule.  Fred Koch performed a heroic, well-paid service for the Fuhrer before the war, building a high tech oil refinery in Germany that ensured  the luftwaffe would have a ready supply of high octane petrol for years to come.   Fred Koch hired a German Nazi nanny (literally, she adored the Fuhrer) to strictly discipline the young Koch boys.   She was apparently very severe in her methods while she was the primary caretaker of the boys for the long stretches when the parents were away.   The nanny proudly returned to the Fatherland after the fall of France.   Talk about Nazi bastards, these boys come by it honestly.

I will amend this review a bit when I am done listening to the book.  It is hard to stop listening to the well-read audio version I have on my listening device.  I’ve already made dozens of notes.  

If we have any hope of fighting back against the monsters now in seemingly locked-down control, a book like this provides essential knowledge we need for understanding the fight ahead.

I highly recommend Dark Money.  Good reading on a subject even more vital to know about now than when she released it in early 2016.   Goddamned good work, Jane, and another very important book (The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Idealsabout Cheney’s torture program, is another, also highly recommended) that deserves to be widely read and talked about.


[1]  A Note on the “Koch Brothers”

The until recently secretive right-wing billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch are known as The Koch Brothers.   Their oldest brother, Freddie, was cut out of the picture years ago after an ugly family power play, featuring an attempt at blackmail by his other three brothers.   David Koch’s twin brother, Bill Koch, after decades of savage litigation against his brothers Charles and David, and some chicanery written into their demented mother’s will, finally signed a non-disparagement agreement with Charles and David, formally ending their long, bitter legal wars.  A family of goddamned princes, really.  Of these four brothers, only two have become “The Koch Brothers.”  You could argue that no two brothers have ever had a larger say in the public life of their country.

Simple vs. Complicated

Complicated is hard, simple is so much easier.   It’s no wonder that buzzwords and the wearing of different colored hats so often carry the day in human affairs.  

Keeping the countless gnarly complications in mind, remembering contradictions, comparing everything to your own situation and remembering that while you may be lucky, many just like you are cursed… the endless nuance and supreme challenge of trying to remain fair-minded, pursuing justice, mindful of history’s famously slippery slopes, the dependable unreliability of history, of homo sapiens —  it is exhausting just to map it out in a sprawling sentence.  

Complicated is difficult, takes too much goddamned work to work your way through, there is no end to complicated.   Simple is better, clearly.

Hence the soundbite.  The tweet.  Slogans.   If your slogan does not parse well and fit on a hat, the marketing folks will nix it.   A great ad is supremely simple.  It hits some essential truth we recognize immediately.   The best of them bring tears, so simple, so true!   We should make that long distance call to the poignantly adorable child who misses us.  Oh, God, it’s all so simple.

Except, of course, that it’s not at all simple.  “What do you think of Bernie Sanders?” someone asks simply, though it’s not likely you dislike Sanders or what he stands for based on the way you talk.    So, carefully, sensing a mine field as the first few critical comments about him fly around the table, you say:  if we remove the personality and the things you just said from the equation and put all the actual issues his campaign raised on the table, I think we’d all agree about most of them.   I got as far as the importance of addressing catastrophic climate change before the heavy guns were wheeled into place.    Sanders is a self-hating Jew, he only uses his Jewishness for his own purposes, he hates Israel, supports BDS  (Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel) [1]  One raises his voice to say he’d vote for Trump before he’d vote for the hypocrite Jew-hater Sanders. 

Now everything is simpler, easier to understand.  My reflexes were a tad too slow, though I know the right thing to do at a moment like this.   It is time to get up from the table and start washing dishes, or at least to clam up.   Perhaps sit on a nearby chair and play the ukulele a bit, as this little storm passes.   All these options I hope to keep in mind should this kind of thing arise again any time soon.  There is no point, no nuance that can be brought up once somebody is peeved enough to say Trump is a better choice than Bernie because Trump loves Israel and Bernie is a grumpy old Jewish Nazi. 

Simple:  Anyone critical of Israel’s long, often brutal, occupation, and the ticking time bomb of millions of encamped enemies living close by, generations of haters, many raised in hellish, hopeless poverty, many living in camps, literally, with state violence the only means of keeping a lid on the anger of now literally generations of these hopeless and dispossessed people — anti-Semite.  

We can agree that Bibi Netanyahu is clearly not an exemplar of the highest Jewish values.  He’s a putz, a schmuck, a much smarter Israeli Trump.  Fine.  Perhaps we can agree that the mildly racist Avigdor Lieberman, former extremist now Israeli Minister of Defense, and his party, to the right of Netanyahu’s right wing group, is not a legitimate force for de-escalating tensions in the seemingly eternal war between former neighbors.  

But, let’s keep this simple.  BDS, Boycott, Divest and Sanction, the same economic tactics used to exert enough pressure to bring down apartheid in South Africa, is plainly anti-Semitic.  Any Jew who thinks it might be a legitimate tactic to employ is simply a Jew hater, end of story.

Sitting here calmly, reflecting dispassionately, it is beyond dispute that there are numerous issues involved in this particular issue of BDS.   It equates Israel to the racist South African regime — not entirely fairly.    This equation requires its own long, sober conversation.    It involves uncomfortable levels of candor, perhaps, or tamping down an angry reflex to dismiss anything comparing Israeli military policies and THINGS THE FUCKING NAZIs used to do.  

Breaking down doors at night, grabbing and torturing suspects, an off the books detention or killing when required, doing secret violence here and there to keep the opposition from organizing, or bulldozing an entire block of homes because a terrorist was harbored in one of those homes, or forced relocation, or whatever you want to bring up, are reminiscent of things ruthless armies of occupation routinely do.  There is a much larger discussion to be had of the particulars of all these policies.  

All this is very uncomfortable terrain to negotiate, even among people who agree about most things in American politics, you have to walk through it very, very slowly, reassuring the other party of your good will at every step.   Easier to just say Israel, eternally menaced by a world of haters, is justified no matter what or the equally emotional position that Israel is acting just like the fucking Nazis.   The tic to view everything as a dichotomy blinds you to any truths that fall along that human gradient, seamlessly from black, to dark charcoal grey, to grey, to paler, mouse grey, to ash-colored grey, to white.  

Truth is hard, true belief is easier.   That ease is the reason so many still support their president, even as his policies are already starting to fuck them hard.

There are Israeli peace groups (example) working tirelessly against the right wing forces in Israel which have controlled the government, and the narrative, since a right wing religious fanatic murdered Itzhak Rabin more than twenty years ago.   These right wing Israeli officials argue it’s perfectly fine, even restrained, to shoot protesters with live bullets if they come too close to the fence in Gaza.  This policy is controversial and complicated, many difficult discussions can be had over whether it’s the best way for Israel to proceed toward any kind of peaceful resolution to the long conflict between Palestinians and Israel..    

But, for the moment, let’s keep it simple, folks.  Israel is a democracy and our greatest ally in the Middle East (along with Saudi Arabia, but why mention those publicly beheading motherfuckers?)   Our U.N. ambassador applauded Israel’s restraint in killing and wounding so relatively few Palestinians in the recent outburst of mass ugliness between these enemy neighbors.   Soon after her comments we [3]  left the U.N. Human Rights Council who wouldn’t stop bitching about Israel’s use of deadly force against unarmed civilian protesters, even suggesting the shootings by sniper might constitute a war crime.  

To cite but one example of the complexities involved.   One Israeli peace group, The New Israel Fund, supports the right of people to use protest methods like BDS, or, more precisely, it opposes the proposed U.S. criminalization of BDS  (their position is much more nuanced, New Israeli Fund actually explicitly OPPOSES BDS).  

Yet to those Jews who seek to keep it simple at all costs, the New Israel Fund supports terrorism by opposing “pro-Israeli” laws to criminalize BDS, thereby supporting BDS and hatred of Israel.  The New Israel Fund is a target of angry American Jews who believe Israelis who oppose their government’s extreme right wing tactics are traitors and anti-Semites, no better than Nazis, really.   I actually heard this view expressed by a tiny gaggle of disgruntled protesters outside a Palestinian-Israeli peace concert we attended.  

Keeping it simple: the New Israel Fund supports terrorism.   Boom.  End of story, synagogue hosting event is giving a forum to anti-Semites! The great David Broza, anti-Semite.  Anyone looking for peace with the enemy– traitor!

The Israeli government’s moral position on the mass shootings at the Gaza-Israel fence is that it gave the Hamas-inspired protesters fair warning: come within this distance of the 37 mile long reinforced fence [2] and we will use deadly force.  The warnings were dropped in the form of leaflets, plainly written in Arabic for anyone to read.  Fair warning.  Come near my fence and I will shoot you, even kill you.   Still they came, protesting by the thousands, surging toward the hated fence, threatening to breach it and cause a bloodbath in Israel, whose right to exist they angrily deny.  

The failing NY Times reported on the many Palestinian deaths, at least sixty, in the days around Ivanka and Jared’s photo op with Bibi Netanyahu as they cut the ribbon on the controversial U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.  Palestinian and international sources give much higher numbers of dead and wounded at the Gaza fence.   Easy enough to dismiss these numbers as fake news, anti-Israel propaganda, since it comes from people who have historically had a bloody ax to grind against Israel.   Is there a number of medics shot that is justifiable?   Is it legitimate to fire on medical personnel because they are aiding and abetting, by trying to save the lives of, those who surge toward the guns of their hated enemies?

It is so much easier to pick a side and just be on it than to try to consider all sides in an extremely complicated and intractable situation and take nuanced positions on a case by case basis.  We can raise arguments about the Palestinian definition of refugees, as the Jerusalem Post apparently did recently.  Simple, these fucks are not actual refugees, they just pretend to be victims under a definition they came up with.   They can’t leave Gaza?   Good for them!   The simple view sees good guys and bad guys and good people stick with the good guys.  Simple.

I was reminded, even sitting around a table with good friends, warm friends, people I love, all old friends who speak Hebrew and love Israel as much as I do, that some innocent questions are, to be simple about it, not innocent.   Say the wrong thing and the conversation is over.   Forget the fact that we all likely agree, to one extent or another, about the school to prison pipeline, intergenerational poverty going back directly to slavery,  the fossil fuel industry-created denial of plainly observable climate catastrophes as part of a of pattern related to centuries of escalating human pollution, vast, escalating income inequality, the anti-democratic curse of concealing information of great public concern from the voting public, the recent gift of billions in tax breaks to the wealthiest, at the cost of cutting the social safety nets for the most vulnerable, our unforgivable and unaddressed national racism (we can pat ourselves on the back for banning the hateful word “nigger” and replacing it with the great neologism “n-word”, much less offensive!), the imminent dismantling of a woman’s federal right to choose to terminate an unwanted, or dangerous, pregnancy, the inevitable corruption of a democratic system where unlimited campaign money is “free speech” and dark money — if donated in a large enough pile — needn’t ever have its source exposed, as the recently rewritten law provides.  

We did not get to this cruel president and his blundering administration by chance. The extremest, greediest billionaires found their donkey to ride to the promised land they’ve been dreaming of since the days of the John Birch Society.   The Koch brothers’ wealthy, distant father was a founder of that society.  The John Birchers were rich, paranoid men who suspected Dwight D. Eisenhower might be a secret Commie, or at least an unwitting dupe of the goddamned Commies.  These canny billionaires built a national infrastructure over the last thirty years or more, methodically, think tank by think tank, state house by state house, created legislative/corporate partnerships, and finally, as the Kochs head toward their reward in heaven (both are old men now) their long-cherished dream has become reality for all of us.  The cancerous chickens of our materialistic, profit-worshipping “libertarian” democracy have come home to roost.

It is a certain kind of torment to live in a world as inured to violence as our world is.  Millions die violent, hopeless deaths, it’s just the way it is.   Cherished principles are so easily tossed aside when policies are addressed directly to our terrors.   THEY ARE GOING TO KILL US!!!!   So we are morally justified in killing them first.   THEY HATE US.   Therefore, we can torture them, because if they hate us, fuck them, you know?   They already hate us, so torture them, what are you being so squeamish about?   They’d do the same to us, probably much worse.  

At the same time, when we are calm, we can recognize that hate never conquers hate, that an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind, that we need our most creative, empathetic, ingenious solutions for intractable, historically violent problems, but those are just abstractions.  All very exhausting abstractions!

BUILD THE WALL!   BUILD THE WALL!!!!   BUILD THE WALL!!!!    Feels pretty good, actually.



 [1]   Not only is this a sticky factual issue, with many sources stating that Sanders actually opposes BDS, but there is a related and completely separate issue that is easily elided into “support for BDS”.   Do you oppose a law criminalizing BDS?   I do, vigorously.   Do I support BDS?  I don’t.  What is Bernie’s position?   Truly, I have no fucking idea, though it appears he doesn’t.   I’m pretty sure he agrees that criminalizing selected nonviolent political expression is anti-democratic.  Which in my book, makes Bernie Sanders no more an anti-Semite than I am– trying my best to live by my Jewish values, including dedication to protecting the weakest among us and not doing what is hateful to us to others.

[2]      The fence is actually two parallel barriers built by the Israelis: a formidable one of barbed-wire within Gaza and a 10-foot-high metal “smart fence” packed with surveillance sensors along the Israel demarcation line. A restricted buffer zone as wide as 300 yards is between them. Israel has warned that people in the zone without authorization risk being subjected to deadly force.    

source   (Lying NY Times) 

[3]  We, the People.

Searching for Ancestors

It is late at night, has been a long day, an emotionally challenging day, but I wanted to get back to my cousin in Israel, so I dropped him an email just now.   He has been searching for the traces of our family and recently found some real clues.   The hamlet our people came from, on a fork in a marsh south of the Pina River a short ferry ride from Pinsk, has been erased from history, wiped off the map–  the people who lived there and the name of the hamlet that all those who lived there called it by.  

Truvovich was the name, wiped from every map in existence, as far as my cousin, and I, and a friend who lives in Poland and is a pretty fair researcher himself (and who searched in Polish), have been able to ascertain.  Between us we turned up one map, with a Jewish star and the letter T at the place we suspect may have been that site where one of my grandmothers, and one of my cousin’s grandfathers, were born.  The link I sent my cousin to that map no longer exists, though we have my screen shot of the pertinent section of the map.  

Pinsk Street Map - circa 1925.png

This takes us into the realm of What the Fuck?   We know the Nazis were fucked up, that the einsatzgruppen, the special killing units that followed the Wermacht, the army, as the secret police state was imposed in one occupied territory after another, were merciless (until they started going mad, becoming alcoholics, became unable, most of them, to continue murdering unarmed civilians and their children, usually by shooting them into ditches).  

The Final Solution, with its mechanized extermination camps, was put in place partly because the number of Jews and others believed by those insane Nazi fucks to be genetic poison was too great to be wiped out by shooting alone, and partly because the killers they sent to massacre these folks just couldn’t keep doing it, psychologically.  Those rare sadists among them who loved to kill became another kind of problem.  Easier to just put them in charge of a crew in one of the death camps, where their perversion would be a virtue.

But I am getting ahead of the story.   At one time all of my family members were alive and supremely insecure in the impoverished little shit hole in the marsh where they lived.  Of two of them, Harry Aaron (who I always knew as Uncle Aren) and my grandmother, Chava, I know what can be known.  Aren fled the Russo-Japanese war, made a life for himself in America, had three children, all of whom I knew.   My cousin in Israel is the son of Aren’s daughter.  I remember Aren too, he lived until I was eleven.   Chava, Aren’s youngest sister, begat my father and my uncle and died in Peekskill a few years before I was born.  There was a cousin, Dintsche, who had two kids in America, both still around,

Beyond that, the fate of the rest of our family is a statistic.  The einsatzgruppen rounded up all the Jews of Pinsk, and the outlying areas, and wiped them out in two major aktions, a few months apart, in 1942.  The details are here.

It is late, and airless, the humidity is like a continual punch in the face.  Outside the sky is black.  I haven’t the strength at the moment to follow all the thoughts that led me to begin to write this.   Except to note the mystery, as we are alive here in this wink of an eye, and the need to know.   The desire, like a serious thirst, to find something out, to learn even a single detail.  It is too maddening to know nothing.  

Recently my cousin learned that one of his great-uncles, a man I’d heard of as Volbear, a man he names Wolf Bear on his family tree, is listed in Yad Vashem as killed in 1942.   This was big news, to see the testimony, our ancestor’s name in writing.  The testimony consisted of a few names: Wolf Bear’s (born 1888), his wife Tzirel’s (age unknown), their two children, Leah Reizel, 14, and Yisrael, 10, and the year they died in the slaughterhouse that was Nazi-occupied Belarus in 1942.  This is far more detail than we have about the fate, and lives, of Aren and Chava’s other brother Yudle or their sister Chaska.

The other day my cousin sent me this photo, taken in 1938, found among his mother’s papers (she lived to 104!).  The niece and nephew of our common ancestor, named for the matriarch and patriarch as far back as our family tree goes (four generations).  Those ancient ancestors would be my great-grandparents on my mother’s side, Leah and Azriel [1].  The nephew and niece in this photo are Azriel and Leah.  Look at them:

Azriel & Leah (Nephew & Niece) - 1938.jpg

1938, before Hitler’s war, the war the madman insisted the Jews made him start. Their photo, taken that year, came with a note, in Yiddish, which my cousin had translated into Hebrew.   My cousin wrote: they state that life is difficult and they are looking for help.  



Leah and Azriel Gleiberman.png

Public vs. Private

The organized Right has had a longtime campaign against the public sphere, continually selling the idea that dynamic private enterprise is always preferable to public program solutions.   This is undoubtedly true from the point of view of maximizing profits for private businesses, although it is a dubious claim in many areas, like education, fairness, access to opportunity, good public policy, etc.   You’d think the failure of the charter schools and the explosion of privatized for-profit prisons (along with mandatory sentences and vast increases in the number of incarcerated Americans — including, today, the confiscated children of asylum seekers) would put this zombie theory to rest.  You’d be wrong.   Private freedom trumps improving the public sphere every time.  Winners vs. Losers, it doesn’t get any simpler than that, chumps.

I was talking to a friend last night who told me that the only reason he got a decent public education in NYC in the 1960s was because he went to schools with a lot of white kids.  He was not a white kid, nor is he a white man today.   The elementary school he’d attended in the Bronx was like the one I attended in Queens, outwardly integrated (in the case of the school I went to only after an ugly battle among the parents and teachers) but internally segregated.   Each grade had classes ranked from one on down, the one class being the top students, down to two, three, and, in the case of most larger public schools,  four, five, six, etc.  As my friend reminded me, the further down you went, the more predominantly non-white the classes became.

In my friend’s case, he was in a class closer to the one class every year and as a result had mostly white kids as classmates.  Because of that, he got the same education as the local white kids.   Expectations were higher for them, and the level of teaching was higher and more challenging.   He had the same experience in Junior High School and High School, both schools having populations approximately evenly distributed between “whites”, “blacks” and “Hispanics”.    He said the schools he went to are no longer integrated, neighborhood patterns having changed, and we agreed that the schools had probably all declined along with the exodus of “white” kids and the general lowering of educational expectations.

At one point I mentioned that I ‘d grown up about a mile from the birthplace and childhood homes of our current president.   I recall my mother telling me that small, intimate P.S. 178, my alma mater, was the top rated public school in New York City.   That was one reason some of the parents and teachers were so adamant about not admitting black students from nearby Jamaica.   Jamaica was a predominantly black area and the schools there were much lower rated than P.S. 178, obviously.

The neighborhood around the school was called Jamaica Estates, and its tree-lined streets contained mansions and the children of some very rich people.  (I grew up in the adjacent, more modest neighborhood called “Flushing”).  Many of the kids from Jamaica Estates attended 178.   I figured our current president might well have attended the highest rated public school in the city ten years before I did.  I’d figured wrong, as Jeeves informed me when I asked what elementary school The Man had attended:

Trump grew up in Jamaica, Queens, and attended the Kew-Forest School from kindergarten through seventh grade. At age 13, he was enrolled in the New York Military Academy, a private boarding school, after his parents discovered that he had made frequent trips into Manhattan without their permission.

Imagine my surprise to find out he’d grown up in Jamaica, among the blacks!  Puts the man and his alleged racism in a whole new light, as they say.  Then again, not surprising that his parents would raise him to be truly elite — a man of the right people.   Good breeding and all that.  No need for the best public school in the city, a ten minute walk from his home, when he could meet the children of the truly elite at a private school where his childish bullying could blossom unrestrained by the laws of the schoolyard.

If you go to public school, you never know what kind of ruffian you might encounter as you begin to intimidate your little classmates.   In a private school, where the student is also the child of a customer (and the customer, if wealthy, is always right) a lot more leeway can be given for this kind of behavior.   In the interest of curbing their son’s impulse to bully, to ignore rules, to put himself always first, the parents sent the young man to military academy.   The results speak for themselves.

If you have a limousine waiting to take you wherever you want to go, and a helicopter, and a private jet for longer trips, you are much better off than the sad sack who has to wait for a public subway train at eleven pm and squeeze into a crowded car where he will stand for the long ride home.  There is no question about this.  

As a matter of public policy, even if only for purposes of reducing traffic and air pollution from millions of cars, it would be best to have a first rate public transportation system in New York City.   This, sadly, is not a priority of the wealthy people who make these decisions.  As for the people who ride the subways at night, standing room only, fuck ’em.   Seriously.  What are they going to do about it, no matter how intolerably bad the service gets?   Spend $50 for an uber?   A rich person need never even know about this situation, and it is certainly not remotely among their problems if a bunch of low-income losers have to stand on a late-night subway train.

Those people who stayed in New Orleans during that hundred year hurricane and flood a few years ago.   The question was asked: what, are those motherfuckers stupid?  Didn’t they hear the warnings?  Couldn’t they have gotten out, moved temporarily to one of their summer homes until the shit blew over in New Orleans? What were they doing on the roofs of their houses, crying for help as alligators, snakes and dead cows floated by?   They fully expected the rest of us to save them from their own bad life choices.   What can you do with those kind of people?

That’s why many of the most wealthy are so devoted to reducing the size of government so that it can be drowned in a bathtub.   The public is dirty, overused, crowded, smelly.  The private is clean, comfortable, plenty of space for everyone, smells nice.   Why do poor motherfuckers keep acting like there is supposed to be a better choice?   Who gets to choose?  You, loser?




Seeing things in another light

It’s funny, sometimes, to notice how one thing leads to another.  Events and thoughts can proceed in a way that makes you suddenly see something in a completely new light.  

The other day, in the sudden extreme heat (the real feel temperature got over 100 in New York City the last few days), I found myself walking around in just shorts.   It was too onerous to wear a shirt, or socks, and since I was inside, moving from fan to fan, I simply wore the minimum to remain decent while walking past the many ground floor windows at the farm.

At some point, standing at the sink of the upstairs bathroom, looking into the mirror, I suddenly saw my immense, oblong gut in a new light– sunlight.   Sunlight may be the best disinfectant for certain things, but it is the harshest possible light in which to see something like a watermelon-sized stomach ballooning over a waist band.   The slanting sunlight lit my stomach from a merciless angle, with a light that made the bulk fully three dimensional in a way my own dim bathroom mirror does not.

I was suddenly filled with horror, true horror, as I turned and saw it from all angles (it was particularly grievous from the side).  I immediately vowed to limit my caloric intake (and have so far, going on my third day, though today for brunch I had toast and home fries) as I rehab my knees, toward the day I will also get back on my former exercise regime.  It was a visceral thing, truly.  Not as if, mind you, I was unaware of the twenty or so pounds I have to lose, but seeing it in this harsh new light there was no longer any way for me to rationalize wearing this thick, bulbous vest of adipose tissue.  Not good for my health, nor for wearing a bathing suit next weekend at our friends’ house by a lake. 

From this thought to Hannah Arendt’s illuminating insight that totalitarianism, as distinct from normal despotism, military dictatorship, brutal monarchy and other familiar time-honored forms of authoritarianism, requires mobilization of the masses in the complete service of the leader and his State.   This new mass authoritarianism only became possible with the advent of truly mass media.  Hitler or Stalin, no matter what their genius for manipulating their followers, could not have exerted the complete social control they did without full ownership of the press and those two nascent mass media technologies, motion pictures and live broadcasts over radio waves (plus telephones and a few other useful technologies for keeping tabs and issuing orders).  

Totalitarian society is always organized as a strict hierarchic bureaucracy, with party loyalists running every one of its hundreds of branches.  Bureaucracy had been around before totalitarians harnessed it, but with the advent of new technologies, it became a much more efficient machine for social control.   Technology, as it was developed, became instantly part of the administration of these bureaucracies.

International Business Machines (IBM), for example, caused a little bit of a stink (though it didn’t seem to hurt their corporate bottom line) when it was learned, after World War Two, that IBM had made its new punchcard technology available to Nazi bureaucrats who used it to ensure the cattle cars heading East were full, and to keep track of who was left to ship East for “resettlement”.   Just a business doing business, corporate bottom line and all, no moral stance whatsoever, just money making money. [1]  

The word bureaucracy conjures hellish images out of a Kafkaesque nightmare. That is for good reason.  Bureaucracies are pyramids, and the vast bulk of the workers in a bureacucracy are powerless, hopeless ants serving their individual bosses on each level, without the slightest autonomy, or even much enthusiasm for their small, mechanical jobs, jobs they usually do with almost total indifference.  

An ant seems undeterrably  enthusiastic about moving crumbs back to the queen at the top of the anthill hierarchy because it is programmed to do so, not because that individual ant has a sense of agency or any kind of autonomy.   A chemical impulse makes the ant behave as it does, and it is not the ant’s place to question anything. The human member of a bureaucracy, however, is by nature somewhat resigned, depressed and embittered.  It is a job that can make you cynical and mean.  You have responsibility for a limited set of mechanical tasks, a limitless amount of drudgery to get through each shift, a very small amount of power (if any at all) and, the best you can hope for, if you do the shit little job well, is upward promotion.

Reminds me of a great remark I once heard about the Rat Race.   Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.

To be human is to expect more, if only because we have powerful myths about our unlimited power as individuals to determine the course of our own lives.   It is undeniable that human progress, and individual progress, is made by those who tirelessly work to make this potential real.  But for the vast masses of individuals, it’s off to work, to a job that usually sucks, for less money than they need or feel they deserve.

As a low level bureaucrat, you tell the disgruntled member of the public you are forced to deal with that they must do such and such.  When they complain you defensively tell them you didn’t make the rules, and that if they don’t want to give up their place on the long line they have already waited on, they’d better do what you’re telling them.   In modern corporate and government bureaucracy your chance of being given correct information is about 50/50, at best [2].   Things are much simpler under totalitarian bureaucracy: you simply do what they say or they send someone to get you and they kill you.

Adding current digital, algorithm-driven technology to bureaucracy brings us into a whole new world of shit.  Use your phone to look for a product, you get all the related ads almost instantly.   When Hitler was pioneering the use of radio, he could get on the air and make a persuasive, lying pitch to millions of Germans at once.  This ability to sell “on the air” helped make him a celebrity, a star, a man with seemingly superhuman powers.  He was the first to address a nation from the air, as his plane flew over a disputed corridor, under Polish control, that he claimed should by right be part of the German Reich.   This was something only a god could do back in 1932, thunder from the air to millions of people.  In 2018, a three year-old on the toilet, tweeting incoherently from his celebrity mommy’s phone, is as godlike as a flying, thundering Hitler over the Polish corridor.  OK, extreme example, maybe, and not the best.   A public official with 20,000,000 twitter followers can reach them all instantly, 24/7, from wherever he/she/it is.  How’s that for a god?

I don’t know where else to go at the moment with these thoughts.  It’s not as if, thank God, we actually have a public official with 20,000,000 followers who can instantly send them ranting real-time temper tantrums at 5 a.m. while straining over his stools.  

(More fiber, you imaginary costive motherfucker.)


[1] In our own time, recently Bill Gates had a tiny bit of dung flung his way when it was revealed that Microsoft facial recognition software had been sold (or perhaps given) to the current U.S. government to help I.C.E. recognize and root out the many potentially dangerous foreign rapists, murderers, terrorists and just plain undocumented “illegal aliens” and their so-tempting-to-cage children.

[2]  Trying to log-in the other day to pay my $375 biennial fee to keep my law license intact, I encountered a series of technological cul de sacs that prevented me from completing my registration (or even starting it, really).  Frustrating.   I sent an email to the help desk and got a helpful reply instructing me on exactly what I needed to do to complete my registration.  I did those things, got no further than the day before, wound up in the same cul de sac.  

Fortunately, the email reply came with a phone number, which I then called. Unfortunately, the phone was eventually answered by an imbecile.   The imbecile told me that I had to log-in with a computer, that I couldn’t use a Mac or an iPad to register.  I told the imbecile that I’d logged in and registered successfully two years ago with a Mac, which is also, by the way, a computer.   He soon grew impatient with my attitude.  

I asked him for the number for tech support, which he said was located in Albany.  He didn’t have the number.  Connected me to somebody who told me what was going on:  the site had been down the other day when I tried to log-in, there had also been many problems with the site’s functionality on Google chrome.  He assured me that, of course, it had nothing to do with Mac or PC format.  While I had this guy on the phone I logged in with another browser and found myself in the same cul de sac.   The problem was not Google chrome.

He agreed that an email about the website being down the other day, or known problems with Google, would have been preferable to constant ambiguous error messages, incorrect instructions, or the idiotic invention about the Macs.  I mentioned my former friend the computer programer who is on the Asperger’s scale, suggesting that many automated replies, such as the ones I kept getting were programmed by folks like him and were neither intuitive nor helpful.  We agreed that often machine logic is simply not the same as human logic, much as we might wish it to be so.   We talked for a while and found a work-around

He had more useful information for me, I could forego the $375 fee if I did such and such (I may do it next cycle, if I can confirm it’s true).   We spoke for a while, I made notes, he verified everything I read back to him.  Great guy.   Asked his name.  It was Joe.  “Thank you, Joe,” I told him.   The odds of talking to a person like that, in any bureaucracy, are about 10 to 1 against it.

In any bureaucracy, you have a more than 50/50 chance of talking to a peevish moron talking through his or her ass than to someone who actually knows how to help.  Luck of the draw, really.