Archive for the ‘The Way We Live Now’ category

Some Damn Foolish Thing In The Balkans

June 4, 2015

It’s getting interesting* down Athens’ way:

ATHENS — Greece on Thursday told the International Monetary Fund it would not make a $335 million payment due Friday, taking a little-used option to defer that payment and three others until the end of the month.

Coming amid tense debt negotiations with the I.M.F. and European creditors, Greece’s decision holds political and financial-market implications that are hard to predict.

There’s a historical resonance sounding in the brinksmanship going on here.  This isn’t just a matter of debt and punishment.  What’s at stake may extend as far as the post-war and then the post-Cold War idea of Europe.  That would be the one intended to prevent even catastrophically incompetent or indifferent rulers from lurching into any replay of the summer of 1914.


Here’s Krugthulu, just as worried as I am — and way better informed:**

There’s an odd summer-of-1914 feel to the current state of the Greek crisis. While some of the main players are, rightly, desperate to find a way to head off Grexit and all it entails, others – on the creditor as well as the debtor side — seem not just resigned to collapse but almost as if they’re welcoming the prospect, the way, a century ago, far too many Europeans actually seemed to welcome the end of messy, frustrating diplomacy and the coming of open war.

The most troubling sign to me is the persistence of the disbelief on the part of international elites/opinion shapers that the Greeks might actually bolt from the Euro.  Never mind the risk to  the various institutional ties that are supposed to hold Europe together in a way that bars future conflict, armed and otherwise.  The idea that someone in a dispute might do something you don’t like seems just too difficult to accept on the part of Greece’s negotiating adversaries.

But there is real hardship in Greece right now, and there has been for years.  Political imperatives matter too:  the Greek government is new, left-leaning, and in power because they explicitly promised not to make deals that would satisfy Germany at the expense of the Hellene in the street.  There really is no guarantee — and lots of reasons to believe the reverse — that this one little, broke country will actually do the bidding of its would be financial masters — and yet even the slightest sign that such resistance is real evokes a kind of bemused wonder.

You can see something of the cognitive dissonance even in the brief “breaking” story in the Times linked above:

Although the practice of bundling I.M.F. loan payments into a single sum during a calendar month is allowed under the fund’s rules, the last time that option was taken was by Zambia in the 1970s.

I’m sure there’s a kinder way of reading that sentence, but it hits my ear as “Greece has the right to do this, but they shouldn’t.”  Unwritten rules, old boy.  Unwritten rules.

I’m with Krugman:  whether or not Greece would be better off or not dumping the Euro, Europe and the world gain an enormous amount from financial stability — which would be badly shaken if it looked like Euro-troubles were about to overtake the currency union.  In other words, it looks to me like Europe (even Germany!) needs Greece at this moment at least as much as Athens needs Brussels.

But what do I know:  I once vowed as a blogger not to behave like a pundit, which is to say, to bloviate about stuff I know only superficially and at second hand.  One thing I do know about, though, and have written on, is World War One.  No one’s mobilizing at this moment, and historical analogies are always fraught on so many levels.  But still, the insouciance, the lack of imagination about consequences — that was overwhelming then.  I smell it thickening in the air now.  That’s not good.

*As in, “May you live in interesting times.”

**This was written last Friday, which is to say before this latest news dropped.

Image:  Ludwig Koch, The allied monarchs and their field-marshals in the First World War (Kaiser Wilhelm II of the German Empire with Austria’s Franz Joseph)  c. 1915

Mountains, Stars, Conflict

May 31, 2015

You’ll forgive, I hope, the self promotion here, but I want to draw attention to an essay I have in The Boston Globe today.

It’s about the controversy over the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) that is beginning to be constructed at the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Mauna Kea is one of the world’s most significant sites for optical and near infrared astronomy — it’s already home to thirteen telescopes, including the two largest now in operation in the twin Keck instruments.


The TMT is designed to have a primary mirror three times the diameter of the Keck ten meter light buckets, with nine times the light gathering area.  Over the last century — which covers the era of large, mountaintop optical observatorys, each similar leap in telescope size has produced startling, powerful discoveries, and there’s every reason to expect the same of the TMT and its planned southern hemisphere counterparts.

But there’s a catch — or something more fundamental than a mere glitch.  Mauna Kea is a sacred site within the Hawaiian tradition, and an environmentally sensitive one, and opposition to TMT has grown from a point of tension to one of direct confrontation.  Construction of the TMT has been suspended, and the governor of Hawaii has called for the removal of a quarter of the existing observatories before the TMT itself begins operating.

In the midst of this confrontation, plenty of people have framed the two sides as another battle in the old war between science and religious belief.  I say in the Globe today that’s a mistake.  A taste:

….the TMT dispute shows where the science versus religion trope goes wrong. The Hawaiian protesters haven’t said that Mauna Kea’s telescopes are inherently impious, or that the data they collect is somehow wrong, or that Hawaiian mythology is a better account of the cosmos. Rather, the value, the joy, the need the observatories satisfy may indeed satisfy many, but not those continuing a Hawaiian tradition that allows its heirs to find connection with memory, with history, with nature — to achieve the same transcendence sought by those who find beauty in the measure of the universe.

That is: The TMT defenders and their opponents seek analogous rewards from their presence on Mauna Kea. Their conflict isn’t between the competing worldviews of science and religion, but between desires that are kin to each other — and that require the same physical space.

Check it out, if your Sunday afternoon tends that way.  Let me know what you think.

Image:  Johannes Vermeer,  The Astronomerc. 1668.


I’ll Be Your Cornhusker Tonight

May 27, 2015

Go Nebraska!

Nebraska on Wednesday became the first conservative state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty, with lawmakers defying their Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, a staunch supporter of capital punishment who had lobbied vigorously against banning it.


By a 30 to 19 vote that cut across party lines, the Legislature overrode the governor’s veto on Tuesday of a bill repealing the state’s death penalty law. The measure garnered just enough votes to overcome the veto.

Slowly, haltingly, one step forward, often too many back, we progress.

Image:  Edouard Manet, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian 1867

April 16, 2015


Figure_skating_beesWhen a non-crazy parent — Alice Dreger — sits in on her son’s sex-ed class, taught by someone who thinks sex is, well…

Read it and weep.  A taste:

The lesson Jerry wanted to impart? This: “You’ll find a good girl. If you find one who says ‘no,’ that’s the one you want.”

He actually said that. If a girl says no, “that’s the one you want.”

Silly me! I have been teaching my son that if a girl says no, you exit politely and get the hell out of her space.

Oh hell, one more morsel:

Ms. Thomas’s dire warnings continued: “It takes only one sperm to fertilize an egg. It takes only one act of sex to get pregnant.”

I wanted to raise my hand and blurt out, “Not if it’s anal or oral!”


You get the drift.  Dreger’s twitter feed for the last day or so is a hoot and a half too…or would be if it weren’t so damn depressing.

Dreger’s problem — or the East Lansing High School’s — is that the school has contracted at least part of its sex ed curriculum to the usual suspects:

The abstinence class is part of the district’s overall sex education unit. According to Fletcher, it is called SMART for Sexually Mature Aware Responsible Teens. It’s provided by an independent contractor working with Pregnancy Services of Greater Lansing, a group that counsels pregnant women to avoid abortion.

Lori Bolan, the administrator of SMART, said East Lansing has been using the program for 22 years to cover abstinence. She said it is fact-based using Centers for Disease Control statistics.

“We are trying to give them an option,” she said. “We’re just one portion of what the school provides.”

And yet, inevitably:

Bolan declined to provide the PowerPoint used in the class and the instructor’s name

This last report is from the local paper, which also seems to think the problem isn’t the crap material, but Dreger’s impertinence in giving it a public ridiculing, writing that her choice to live tweet was a shonde:

unfortunately for East Lansing schools, she found a spot with wifi.

In the end, this is yet anothe example of the perils of privatization.  “Independent contracting” of sex-ed to anti-sex, anti women’s autonomy pressure groups is analagous to handing a donor a badge and a gun, or turning convicted criminals into product for processing in private prisons…and so on.  Public goods — an accurately educated school population; professionally policed streets; socially agreed and imposed punishment and rehabilitation are not “luxuries” to be doled out to high bidders or motivated donors.

Or rather they are, but not in civilized societies.

Images:  Photo of bee figure skaters (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) via bugeater.

Titian, Danaë with Eros, 1544.

The War At Home

April 10, 2015

Via Vox, this information and chart on death-by-cop:

A huge majority of the more than 5,600 deaths on the map are from gunshots, which is hardly surprising given that guns are so deadly compared to other tools used by police. There are also a lot of noticeable fatalities from vehicle crashes, stun guns, and asphyxiations. In some cases, people died from stab wounds, medical emergencies, and what’s called “suicide by cop,” when someone commits suicide by baiting a police officer into using deadly force.

Massacre of the innocents

It’s important to note that thte 5,600 number is an estimate, and a lower bound at that:

D. Brian Burghart, head of Fatal Encounters, estimates that his organization’s collection of reports from the public, media, and FBI only captures about 35 percent of total police killings.

That’s a terribly…useful information gap:

This means that it’s hard to gauge, based on this incomplete data set alone, whether these types of killings are becoming more common.

How wonderfully obscure.

Still the data that do exist speak volumes.  Here’s one way to get a sense of the scale of the violence.  In the same period (actually, 2001- April, 2015) US deaths-in-action in Iraq and Afghanistan total 5374.  Saddam and his army, the Taliban, ISIL and all the rest have killed, at a minimum, ~two hundred fewer Americans than our domestic police.

Make of that what you will.

Image:  Pieter Breughel the Younger, The Massacre of the Innocents, c. 1605-1610.


February 6, 2015

Or rather…


The reanimated corpse of Dr. Jonas Salk, the medical researcher who developed the first polio vaccine, rose from the grave Friday morning on what authorities believe is a mission to hunt down idiots.


The usual suspects beware.

Another drive-by post, but go read the whole of Andy Borowitz’s update to his eponymous report.*  It’ll help your mood.

You’re welcome.

*Yes.  I did put this post up solely for the purpose of getting to type “eponymous.” It’s the little pleasures…

Image:  Antoine Wiertz, The Premature Burial, 1854.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong

January 21, 2015

When self selected vigilantes assaulting armed strangers in public spaces?

Consider this incident:

According to the Hillsborough  Sheriff’s Office, [African-American] 62-year-old Clarence Daniels was entering Walmart with his legally concealed firearm to buy coffee creamer on Tuesday when he was spotted by 43-year-old vigilante Michael Foster.

Foster, who is white, had observed Daniels conceal the weapon under his coat before he came into the store. When Daniels crossed the threshold, Foster tackled him and placed him in a chokehold…

Florida, Jake…but at least the worst outcomes were avoided:

He’s got a gun!” Foster reportedly exclaimed.

“I have a permit!” Daniels repeatedly shouted back.

After a struggle, the men were separated. Deputies later arrived and Foster was charged with battery.

V0017125 Head of a man, composed of nude figures. Oil painting.

So:  no one died.  Good.

A couple of thoughts, though:  (a) what kind of asshole do you have to be to decide that you want to walk around looking for folks to bash based on whether they look hinky to you?  B)  if it’s really all about guns, then what’s going to keep you from going all George Zimmerman at any point in the drama?  That this ended with neither the victim nor the self-appointed asshole on a gurney is just a signal that FSM was dangling its noodly appendage down Hillsborough way that day, nothing more.

The most obvious take away is, of course, that this couldn’t possibly be about race because (nods to Charlie Pierce) it’s never about race.  Except…

Again, I see it as a near miracle that the legal gun owner who happened to be black is still alive right now.  The white vigilante is lucky too, certainly — jumping a guy with a gun is not a long-term health strategy — but we’ve seen too much lately of what even the merest hint that an African American man or kid! might be armed does to their odds.

But I want to point out the essential current here, the unifying thread that runs through all of these incidents, the tragedies and the bathetic ones alike.  That’s fear, brought on by the worship of the gun.  How on earth is vigilante-ism even a thing in 2015 America?  It’s because the toxic combination of racial and class politics and unlimited arsenals produce terror and rage in equal and toxic admixture.

Worst of all is then how normal this all seems to those in the midst of it.  Consider this advice:

“The Sheriff’s Office recommends that vigilante-inclined citizens refrain from taking matters into their own hands, especially when an incident is gun-related,” the Tampa Bay Times reported.

McKinnon said that vigilantes should “make sure there’s a good reason” before tackling gun owners.

Ya think?

In the end the fact that actual bad guys do not in fact carry neon signs to identify them  (no Poor Impulse Control tattoos yet) means that, well, it’s a target rich environment.

“Unfortunately he tackled a guy that was a law-abiding citizen,” McKinnon noted. “We understand it’s alarming for people to see other people with guns, but Florida has a large population of concealed weapons permit holders.”

In other words:  be careful out there.  Someone, soon, is going to get killed in one of these stunts.  And once again the tree of liberty will be watered with the blood of someone just going about their business, or a kid who happens to be in the next aisle when the stray shot comes home or…

Not to mention, except I will, again:  the racial element here.  White guys chasing black guys they fear is an old trope in American life.  It’s with us still.  Video at eleven.

PS:  I’m totally with Bryant Gumbel here.

Image: F. Balbi, The head of a man composed of writhing nude figuresposs. 1868.


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