Archive for June, 2010

A Day Like All Other Days…

June 29, 2010

…filled with the events that alter and illuminate our time, but –you get the idea. Yesterday was fairly amazing. The Supreme Court says the Second Amendment applies to state and local governments. (And Justice Stevens has his last day on the court, and Justice Ginsburg’s husband dies.) John Burge is found guilty of perjury and obstruction. Alex is becoming a hurricane. Eleven Russians are busted for –what? Spying? Not exactly.

Burge is probably the least familiar item on this list, to most readers. He was for many years a police commander in Chicago, in one of the more crime-ridden districts. In that capacity, he was accused of torturing suspects to extract confessions, some true, some not. He was sued for many of these incidents, and cost the Chicago taxpayers a whopping chunk of change. But nobody got around to bringing criminal charges until after the statute of limitations had run out. So the feds ended up charging him with perjury and obstruction of justice in the various civil cases. Burge had the nerve to testify, not only that he had never committed any act of torture, but that he had never known of any such act while he was on the job. Apparently he expected the jury, which was after all composed of people too old to believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, and therefore could not possibly have believed that Burge never even knew of the torture of suspects, to approve it by acquitting him with a wink-wink nudge-nudge, because after all, the victims were “rats” and “garbage.” It would have been a ringing endorsement of government by cop. And the jury, bless their hearts, refused to do it. Three cheers!!

Then there’s the Second Amendment. This one scares me. Admittedly, Chicago’s stringent gun laws have not prevented 80 shootings and 13 gun deaths in the last two weeks. But legalizing the guns already on the street can only make things worse. From a lawyer’s point of view, what this decision has probably set off is a stream of litigation similar to that spawned by Roe v. Wade. The Court spent the twenty years after Roe parsing out what state and local restrictions on abortion were an “undue burden” on the constitutionally established right to choose to terminate a pregnancy. Now we’re in for twenty years or so of working out what state and local restrictions on gun ownership are an “undue burden” on the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Will the automobile analogy hold up, so that it’s okay to require a license, and registration, and a test of competence, and even education? How about ballistic “fingerprinting” of every gun? Liability insurance? One can only hope.

Russian spies, after all these years? This one is plain mysterious. Apparently they’ve been under surveillance for ten years. And the charges have to do with “infiltrating” so as to be in a position to spy, rather than actually spying. They are charged, as nearly as I can tell, with behaving like ordinary middle-class American family men and women. O Levittown, where is thy sting?

Alex is on its way to becoming a Level 1 hurricane. It won’t directly interfere with the BP efforts at cleanup, but it won’t help any either. And speaking of the BP cleanup, every time I turn on the tv these days, I encounter a super-slick (you should pardon the expression), beautifully produced BP ad telling us how wonderful their cleanup work is and how well it’s progressing. Which they evidently expect the American public to accept at face value (not unlike the Burge defense expectations of the American jury.) Those ads obviously cost a mint to make. They were necessary mainly because BP is shutting the press out of the scene of the crime–oops–cleanup, so we don’t get any other information about it. If the press were allowed in, obviously, they’d tell us all about it on their own dime. And BP could use its ad budget to better fund the cleanup. We should be so lucky.

A bit further back in the news, a 5-inch turtle kept an AirTran flight on the ground in Atlanta until the jackbooted thugs of the TSA made its 10-year-old owner take it off the plane and throw it in the trash. (BTW, in looking up this incident I discovered that TSA also stands for “Turtle Survival Alliance.” Really.) But this story does have a happy ending—eventually the turtle, none the worse for its traumatic experience, was reunited with the owner’s father. OTOH, last week, when another plane landed unexpectedly in the middle of the night at a small “international” airport, the passengers were kept on the plane for three hours because no TSA or ICE staff was available to check on them. So, just in case any of them might be terrorists or illegals or whatever, they were not allowed to set foot on US soil. TSA, in short, is now replacing school administrators as the apostles of Zero Tolerance, which is Newspeak for Infinite Control, Zero Common Sense. (But no turtles were harmed in the earlier incident.)

Red Emma

Dueling Loyalties

June 24, 2010

The public uproar about the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the Mavi Marmora has created a new crop of discussion of “dual loyalties.” Curious, I did some searches for the phrase. It turns up almost entirely in three contexts: the relationship of American Jews to Israel, the relationship of Barack Obama to Indonesia and/or Kenya, and the relationship of Hispanic Americans to Mexico, in roughly that order of frequency.

I also occasionally get invited to participate in various Zogby polls, on which one of the routine questions is whether I consider myself primarily a citizen of my town, state, country, or the planet Earth. I always answer “the planet Earth,” not because I am a diehard environmentalist or a world federalist, but because it’s the closest answer to “God’s creation,” which is what I really do consider myself a citizen of.

The standard and expected answer (judging from the “dual loyalties” results) is apparently “the United States.” I’m not even going to get into the “right or wrong” stuff that often accompanies this discussion. Even Zogby seems to assume that one’s first loyalty should be to a governmental body of some sort (“planet Earth” is obviously an afterthought.)

More to the point, there seems to be a universal assumption that everyone should have a single, primary loyalty.

I have known a couple of people with a single, primary loyalty. I have heard of a few others. They were all dangerous monomaniacs, whom I would not entrust with the care of my worst enemy’s dog. No morally competent human being reared outside a box, a cage, or a desert island can have a single, primary loyalty. Multiple loyalties are a part of the human, social condition. “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend,” says E.M. Forster, “I hope I would have the guts to betray my country.”

On the other hand, compulsory clerical celibacy is one way organizations reduce the possibility of conflicting loyalties. There is something to be said for it. Arguably, Gandhi should have chosen a celibate life, judging from the difficulties endured by his wife. In fact, probably a lot of Great Men, and some Great Women, would have done better to eschew matrimony and, even more so, parenthood. There are some careers, mostly undertaken by males, BTW, which really do not combine well with parenthood.

But even celibates have loyalties to family, friends, and communities which can conflict with and sometimes override loyalties to country, ideology, or institution. Celibacy doesn’t solve the problem of conflicting loyalties, it just reduces its scale a bit. To be a human being living in a society more complex than the primordial cave necessarily entails balancing competing loyalties. Adam and Eve became fully human when they chose loyalty to each other over obeying the divine command. We Jews do not necessarily consider this a “Fall.” Arguably, it was a major step up. Abraham got the complete message several generations later: if loyalty to G-d requires sacrificing your child, loyalty to your child comes first.


In Search of Adequate Beauty

June 24, 2010

I spent most of my childhood in South Florida in the late 1940s and the 1950s. Apparently, the development of that part of the world (Dade and Broward counties, anyway) at that time consisted in bulldozing all vegetation off of the utterly flat landscape and then building various small houses each surrounded by its own lawn of crabgrass (which was the only kind of grass that would grow on the sandy soil remaining on the ground) and a couple of palm trees. Throw in a hibiscus here and there, and a few real trees, maybe two or three per block. Not much green. A lot of yellow in various shades. Not much shade. That development must have happened right after WWII, apparently in response to a lot of veterans who had been stationed somewhere in Florida during the war and were now interested in moving their families back there. It was, after all, warm all year round, and seemed cleaner and better-managed than the Northern cities. In retrospect I can see how that would have appealed to people who had grown up in apartments in Buffalo or wherever. At the time, it made no sense at all to me. The sun hurt my eyes, I sweated perpetually in the heat and humidity, and every prospect displeased.

I moved away from there as quickly as I could, and went to college in Boston. Which I fell in love with almost immediately. The landscape was non-Euclidean. It had ups and downs. And it was green. Deep rich shady green all over (except in the fall, when it was red and orange and yellow, and in the winter, when it was black and grey and white, but still not yellow, and fascinating.) It’s hard to describe how that affected me. I was, of course, an adolescent at the time, so everything affected me strongly, for better and for worse. Life was full of firsts and mosts and onlies, all of which bowled me over. But the actual place was one of the two or three major, positive mosts.

Ultimately, Mr. Wired and I moved to Chicago, where I have since lived for most of my life. Unlike New England, it’s flat. The highest point in our neighborhood is 90 feet above sea level; it’s a hillock in the park where the local dogs have their play group twice a day. I still miss the ups and downs of New England, but I can live without them, because even Chicago is green. Right now it is so lushly green that every time I drive down a street or look out the window or walk to the store, I am overwhelmed with how lucky I am to be here. Many of the trees I walk through are elms, and therefore seriously endangered by Dutch Elm Disease. There are other tree plagues around here too, most notably the Emerald Ash Borer. And in major storms, like the one we had last night, there are always trees knocked over, probably victims not only of strong winds and lightning but of their own age and internal rot. But no matter how precarious the greenness is, it is still here, and I am still in love with it. Even Chicago, hog butcher to the world and so on, mile after mile of concrete and asphalt, is green enough to keep my soul alive. Boston would be better. Vermont would be better still. But Chicago is green enough, and even beautiful enough.

Paradoxically, I have been back to Florida several times since moving away, for family visits. And it seems to have gotten a lot greener in the intervening years. Is that just a matter of time enabling stuff to grow which was just barely planted when I left? Or did the local developers actually get smarter, and start planting stuff other than crabgrass and palm trees? I suspect it’s a bit of both. As I get older and have more trouble navigating the sidewalks and streets in winter, I find Florida more attractive, though probably not to the point where I would ever move back. It certainly hasn’t sprouted any hills in the meantime. In fact, most of it may vanish under rising sea levels by the time we start seriously contemplating moving south. Given the potential for meteorological catastrophe looming over most of the country, Chicago actually seems surprisingly safe, unlikely to succumb to flood, earthquake, volcano, hurricane, or sinkholes. And, now that I think about it, it is beautiful enough.

Jane Grey

Back in the Saddle Again

June 20, 2010

Well, sort of. Mr. Wired is still in the hospital, while the various nurses and doctors and other health workers do the really old-fashioned thing and wait for nature to take its course, meanwhile trying to figure out why it’s taking so long. He’s feeling a lot better most of the time, and getting well taken care of. So I have felt okay about spending more time at the office and at home. Right now I’m doing a bunch of laundry, swigging seltzer, and toying with the idea of lunch sometime in the next hour or two. Thanks to all for your prayers and good thoughts.

So, a bunch of things that have crossed my mind in the meantime:

1) why don’t we set up a Nobel Prize in Bureaucracy, to be awarded to whoever can invent self-documentation of all legal/medical/business/governmental procedures? Such a prize definitely ought to come with a lot more than a million dollars or whatever the going rate is these days, but the system thus created ought to be compulsorily licensed to absolutely everybody. It would bring down health care costs (as the docs here have already pointed out), reform the legal system, and all kinds of other good stuff we can barely imagine. Basically, this is an IT problem, which I gather many Alexandrians are qualified to talk about. It’s a lot more important than the Y2K problem. Nu?

2) the BP blowout and its accompanying political flak. Ya gotta hand it to God’s Own Party and their Tea Partying minions, if they can make hay out of such a major malfunction of capitalism, they can do just about anything! The only conceivable equivalent would be the Pope getting mileage out of how badly the Lutherans are dealing with clergy child abuse,

3) which, as you have probably noticed, he has not succeeded in doing. It ill behooves me, of course, to be advising the Catholic Church about anything, but if I were doing their PR in the US, at least, I would be mounting a huge public campaign on behalf of undocumented aliens, many of whom are Catholic. Such a campaign would include but not be limited to: providing free secondary and university education in the Catholic school system to all undocumented young people who cannot qualify for financial aid through the conventional system; providing free or sliding-scale health care in the Catholic hospital system for undocumented aliens; providing free legal representation to undocumented aliens in the immigration machinery and the criminal courts; and working with Catholic church agencies in the home countries of such aliens to help smooth the way home for those who get deported. This would be monstrously expensive, and could put the Catholic Church on the wrong side of its major allies in the anti-abortion fight, but would at least convince the rest of us, and perhaps the Pope’s Boss, that the Pope does not believe “life” begins at conception and ends at birth.

4) Father’s Day—I’m remembering my father, ethical accountant, composer, church volunteer, super-organized person, and gentle man. I still miss him. I get a twinge of grief whenever I have to deal with a federal tax problem, because it was such fun to have an excuse to call him for a consultation and whatever else we felt like talking about. I know he believed he would be with my mother after he died, so I believe he is, even though I have absolutely no idea about the afterlife in general aside from that. About such personal theological matters, I do not reason from the particular to the general.