Archive for the ‘banality of evil’ Category

Disgruntling Employees and Scorning Women: Why Would Anyone Do It?

October 2, 2012

Lawyers see a lot of this. A boss puts written reprimands in an employee’s file, repeatedly. Each one of them turns out to be unfounded. The employee responds in writing and with documented proof. But the reprimands keep coming. They keep being unfounded. But the employee is getting more and more frazzled, partly because she has to spend more and more time and energy on the reprimands, and therefore has less of it to devote to actually doing her job. She becomes uncommunicative and subdued in demeanor, less involved in the communal cameraderie of the workplace. The employee suspects that the boss is doing this to get rid of her, perhaps because she is the wrong gender, the wrong age, the wrong color, or in some other legally unmentionable way doesn’t fit in. But she can’t prove it, and in the meantime her personnel file gets thicker and thicker. Finally, the boss begins the process of official disciplinary action, based on several months of reprimands in her file. That action may vary from place to place, but usually involves a progression from oral reprimands to written reprimands to suspension with pay to suspension without pay to termination. At termination, a pair of burly security guards usher her to her cubicle to clear out her desk, and then walk her out in what looks for all the world like a perp walk. If anyone asks why the armed escort, they will be told that you never know what a disgruntled employee may be capable of and we can’t take chances. She will, of course, be barred from the premises forever afterward, and her former co-workers will be warned against communicating with her in any way. If they ask why, they will be told “that’s confidential. We’re protecting her privacy.” The co-workers can be excused for concluding that the lady must really be off the deep end, nuts and possibly violent.

If the employee in question really is markedly different from most of her colleagues and bosses by reason of age, gender, or race, she may have a slender chance of a legal remedy for what has happened to her. That’s where some of my clients come from. But the reprimands in her file, and the aura of danger surrounding her, make a legal remedy hard to come by. The law on workplace discrimination requires the plaintiff to pretty much prove that the defendant’s behavior is explicable only by discriminatory motives. All the employer has to do is generate enough smoke to convince the court that there must be a fire in there someplace.

The employer has yet another advantage in these cases. Not only can the judge be easily convinced that the employee deserved to be fired, for perfectly legal reasons. But in addition, the employee’s testimony and evidence can be subjected to withering doubt because she has obvious motivation to lie. After all, she’s crazy. And disgruntled. And for some mysterious reason has taken a dislike to the boss.

The employer can even admit to most of the plaintiff’s allegations—“yes, I wrote her up all the time, and didn’t always check my facts first, so a lot of those writeups turned out to be mistaken. That still doesn’t give her the right to become sullen and morose on the job. Or to lie about me being a bigot. And it had nothing to do with her being a Pakistani.” He can readily admit to having given her a motive to behave improperly, because legally, he has not given her a justification.

Chances are that some employees subjected to this treatment may actually become crazy and/or violent. It speaks amazingly well for the ordinary working person that it happens so rarely. The documented incidents of workplace violence over the last thirty years have, so far as I know, never been investigated from this angle. Perhaps they should be.

Another interesting sidelight on bad boss scenarios is that the bad boss in question may be engaging in some really serious or even criminal wrongdoing, not against the unfortunate employee who gets in the way, but against the company, the agency, the Big Boss, the public, or the customers. By picking on the particular employee, he has neutralized her as a source of evidence against him in this larger context. And it doesn’t do her much good, after the fact, to be able to point to his subsequent indictment and conviction and say “See, I knew he was a crook all along.” She has still been fired, and will probably have a lot of trouble getting hired elsewhere. The closest thing to a useful strategy she, or her lawyer, can use, is to keep her case dragging out so that it is still going on when the boss gets indicted. This is usually pretty difficult.

Then there’s the “woman scorned” defense. If I were a man, and wanted to commit some perfect crime against, or involving, or at any rate unavoidably witnessed by, a woman, I would first initiate a romantic relationship with her, and then dump her as humiliatingly as possible. Thereafter, it wouldn’t matter what she knew about my nefarious deeds—nobody would believe her because she is a woman scorned, and therefore capable of making up any kind of lie about me. Would the device work if the sex roles were reversed? Dunno. Never seen it tried. Needs further research.

And, once again, The Jerk could take the witness stand and admit on the record to the dirtiest, slimiest behaviors he has ever committed against her, things that would make every woman in the courtroom want to cross the street to avoid shaking hands with him, and his case would only improve with each tawdry detail. Because each detail builds up more and more motive for the unfortunate lady to lie, or to retaliate in some illegal manner, without providing her with any legal justification.

Of course, most of us are capable of jerkitude at work and at play. But we do not usually plan to commit it as part of a setup for a perfect crime or even actionable discrimination. We just do what comes naturally. The most serious jerks generally behave that way, and also commit crimes or torts, for the same reasons—they feel entitled to do so. Often, the use of the “disgruntled employee” and “woman scorned” defenses never occur to them at all, until after the fact when a lawyer points them out. Perhaps only a particularly devious lawyer would think about it ahead of time. The result is the same.

Red Emma

The Broccoli Reflex

August 14, 2012

[I originally wrote this in 1992 for a newspaper I contributed to at the time. I understand that this is now construed as auto-plagiarism unless properly confessed, but it still seems relevant to current realities, and is hard to find anyplace else, so I am, modestly, reprinting it here as a public service.]

Quick, what do broccoli, tofu, fruitcake, and Democratic presidential candidates have in common? The first answer is probably most people’s first reaction to all of these: “Eeeeeeuuuww!” The second answer is that I suspet very strongly that this reaction, in all four instances, has been conditioned by, if not a Sinister Media Conspiracy, something at least as effective.

Kids are raised, from the first time they set eyes on televised food commercials, to dislike vegetables, and especially broccoli. Sometimes it is the purveyors of some veggie delicacy themselves who teach this lesson. “You may think broccoli is yucky, but we do something to it that you’ll like!” Tofu is the butt of everybody’s jokes about Japanese cuisine, nouvelle cuisine, vegetarian cuisine, and healthy New Age living. And fruitcake, over the last few years, has become a staple of Christmas jokes. Nobody eats fruitcake, the joke goes; they just wrap it up and pass it around the family from generation to generation, using it as a doorstop between holiday seasons.

In point of fact, broccoli, like any other green vegetable, can be quite tasty if not overcooked. Tofu takes on the taste of whatever it’s cooked with, for better or for worse. Which means that, cooked with decent seasonings, it can be a tasty, no-fat substitute for meat or cheese. And fruitcake–well, I may be prejudiced by the fact that my family recipe for fruitcake starts out with soaking a bunch of dried fruit in rum for 24 hours or so, but I like fruitcake, quite a lot actually, and so do about half the people I know.

Still, the bad press given to these laudable foods is really harmless in the greater scheme of things. What happens to Democratic candidates is more serious. For instance, a poll done shortly after some spectacularly bad economic news last fall indicated that 56% of the population would vote for an unnamed Democratic candidate (sort of like a first draft choice, I suppose) against Bush. But the figure dived to well below 50% for any specific Democrat.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan not only succeeded in carrying the popular and electoral college vote against Walter Mondale, but in completely destroying Mondale’s personal credibility. A monogamous churchgoer who had spent twenty-odd years getting regularly re-elected to Senate and Congress from a conservative sobersided state somehow became perceived overnight as a weak-kneed defender of sexual promiscuity and financial profligacy. He has essentially not been heard from since, and could probably not be elected to a local school board.

Then, in 1988, a wide array of well-educated, experienced candidates with a variety of interesting positions on important issues got shot down, one by one, for a spectrum of personal failings ranging through all the Seven Deadly Sins. The lone survivor of the process, Michael Dukakis, was the successful governor of a then-thriving state. But before the campaign was over, he had managed to blow a 17-point lead and came out looking like the patron saint of wimps and rapists. His credibility has been destroyed, and he would have a hard time getting a credit card these days. After these depressing examples, one can hardly blame the electable Democrats for not getting into the race until about two months after the start of the usual season, or Mario Cuomo for being unwilling to get into it at all. In most elections, even the loser gains something, be it only name recognition for a business or professional practice, or a good shot in the next election. When a Republican loses in the presidential primaries or the election, he can live to campaign another day, possibly for another office. Look at Reagan. And Bush. And Goldwater. Even Nixon is surprisingly lively. But when a Democrat does it–at least since McGovern–he’s out of the picture, and out of almost any picture, forever. Clearly, he has very little to gain and almost everything to lose by running. Now that any Democrat with the IQ necessary to sign his own nominating petition has figured this out, we have to assume that those still willing to run are either crazy or very very gutsy and dedicated.

Maybe that really is how we progressives want our candidates selected–the survival of the craziest. But if it isn’t, we need to bring to our own awareness and then the public’s, to the insidious mechanism that clicks into action against any Democrat the instant he becomes known as a possible presidential candidate–the conditioning program to trigger the Broccoli Reflex. Face it, folks, nobody could be simultaneously as vapid and wimpy and corrupt and stupid and insubstantial and dangerous and dull as we always end up believing all of the Democratic candidates are, and still tie his shoes and stay out of jail, let alone get elected to state or federal office and perform even the most minimally ceremonial duties of that office. A Democrat could have the charisma of Franklin Roosevelt, the vision of Eleanor Roosevelt, the devotion and integrity of Mother Teresa, the brains of Albert Einstein, and the good looks of Robert Redford, and the Sinister Media Conspiracy would still find a way to trigger the “Eeeeeuuuww! “reflex at mere mention of his name or party affiliation.

When we hear the current batch of candidates called the six-pack (“all lite, no head”), we need to recognize that this isn’t political satire, it’s operant conditioning. The GOP mastered the trick by accident in 1972 (actually coining the neologism “ultraliberal” for the occasion because even they knew nobody would swallow the idea of McGovern as a radical), and lost by accident to the same mechanism in 1976. (Everybody thinks it was the Nixon pardon that cost Ford the White House. In fact it was Chevy Chase’s persistent portrayal of Ford, on “Saturday Night Live”. as a maladroit malapropist.) Since then, they haven’t faltered once, and nobody has spotted the wires under their levitation act.

I don’t mean to imply that all Democratic candidates do in fact combine all the better traits of a Roosevelt/Teresa/Einstein/Redford hybrid. Obviously, Hart and Biden really did adulterate and plagiarize, respectively, and some of the others made minor but genuine goofs that year. But a Republican can lie, cheat, steal, fornicate, adulterate, and sell out the entire American economy to the Japanese–can have the brains of Dan Quayle, the family life and war record of Ronald Reagan,and the ethics and looks of Richard Nixon–and still be perceived by just about everybody, including most Democratic voters, as “presidential caliber.” There is more going on here than meets the eye. Broccoli, fruitcake, and tofu were only trial runs. The way things are going now, in 1996, the Republicans could run a Big Mac for President–a Big Mac over 35 years old!–and win. Next time somebody says “six-pack” (except, of course, when referring to beer), STOP the conversation right there. And don’t let it proceed until you have forced all participants to ask themselves “Where did I hear that? Do I really want to say it or endorse it? What do I really know about any of these guys?” And let’s be really conscious that there is a real difference between satire and sabotage.

Red Emma

See What The Boys In the Basement Will Have

December 7, 2011

The “boys in the basement” are what Stephen King calls his muse, the source of his imagination. Mostly they just hang out, idly, making occasional noise, drinking beer, and every now and then sending messages upstairs. When they are napping, or when the folks upstairs are paying insufficient attention to them, the writer is stuck. “Blocked,” as some of the semi-pros like to say.

The pros often say there is no such thing as writer’s block, there is only laziness. I think that may depend on how one experiences, or defines, the state of consciousness required for writing. For me, it varies, often depending on the context. Back when I wrote regularly for publication, what I mainly required was a topic, a word count, and a deadline, and I believed I could produce just about anything on time. That belief may or may not have been justified, but it worked pretty well most of the time, for the kind of stuff I was expected or contracted to write.

Under deadline, I don’t recall ever being blocked. Often, I would wait until some siege of particularly inclement weather (snow or heat) to wall myself up and produce produce produce. Chicago can be trusted to come up with such onslaughts often enough to keep the writer at work. Sometimes, I would use a long weekend for the same purpose. But working against the clock really helped a lot.

These days, when nobody is waiting on my production to fill space or meet some third-party obligation, it’s harder for me to get going. The boys in the basement are too busy playing video games to communicate with me. When they bother, often, it’s to complain about the brand of beer I’m stocking.

Sometimes, the problem is that I feel as if I’ve already said it all, at least about some particular subjects. Newt Gingrich, for instance. Back when he was just a twinkle in the eye of his Georgia congressional district (which my brother was living in at the time), I thought he was a flake, but a smart flake. I still do. Since then, he has made his bones as a serial wife-dumper and contributed significantly to my opinion of the GOP as a large closet rather than a big tent. He has joined the collection of people I would cross the street to avoid shaking hands with (along with Clarence Thomas, but that’s another story.) (People with whom I would cross the street to avoid shaking hands? See Churchill’s “the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”) But mostly, I think I said it all in the 1990s.

Same goes for The Bell Curve, which is now enjoying revived discussion in the Atlantic by two of my favorite writers, Coates and Sullivan. I taught a course using it, and Plato’s Republic, and Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man, back in the 1990s, and essentially summarized the course for a review in a small newspaper around the same time. What more could I possibly say? See for yourself ( If they’d just give me some frakkin’ new material, maybe I could think of something new to say about it.

Okay, what about the GOP primary? Is Romney “inevitable”? Maybe. Maybe even in the general election, since it looks as if both sides might actually allow him to govern if he gets elected. Not sure any other candidate, on either side, meets that qualification. That may be all the voters want, these days. Chances are, they would even accept a third-party candidate if he seemed likely to meet that bar. Cain is comic relief; although it bothers me that some commenters see the stories about his affair as being all the more damaging because it allegedly lasted 13 years. I think 13 years is a plus. It indicates that Cain is capable of focused affection, unlike the afore-mentioned Newt, or Rudy Giuliani, who actually managed to cheat on his wife, his official mistress, and his girlfriend within the same short span of months. Maybe that’s just the cynical perspective of a divorce lawyer. But dammit, it’s all old news.

Okay, how about: which is worse, or better, the Tea Party, or Occupy Wherever? (A recent client of mine actually got busted with Occupy Salt Lake City, a mind-boggling concept.) That’s relatively new news, right? I think they draw their passions from the same cultural spring. They’re not quite as easy to tell apart as anarchists (dionysian) versus libertarians (apollonian.) They both have a very healthy dose of localism. And they both have a large dose of dionysian energy and not a helluva lot of apollonian intellect behind them. But they are both, in fact, slightly differing ways of saying “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” Which dates back to Network, in 1976. And which in turn, I think, is a loose translation of “je m’en fichisme,” a French phrase which the New Yorker dates back to 1917 or thereabouts, but which I first encountered in the late 1950s, and which apparently has stuck in my memory because I was studying high school French at the time, and got a kick out of learning a French phrase that the good sisters undoubtedly were never going to teach me.

How about sexual child abuse among college football coaches? Nothing new there, except that none of them are vowed to celibacy, and some of them may even be Protestant. The scandal seems to have erupted on a slow news day and then taken on a life of its own.

Okay, breaking news—our Chicago public radio station has just announced that tonight it is “pre-empting the world” ! How’s that for nerve? Actually, it just means we don’t get to listen to the BBC world news program tonight, because the head of the Chicago public school system is coming on live to answer questions in the same time slot. Not a bad idea, but not exactly world-shaking (or even world-pre-empting) either. Maybe I’m the one with a case of je m’en fichisme.

Or maybe my real problem is that the boys in the basement, kind of like a newborn baby, sleep when I’m awake and available to write, and start jumping around when I’m getting ready for bed. Stephen King, never having been pregnant, seems not to notice the similarity.

Today, our former governor got sentenced to 14 years for corruption. His predecessor, I think, got six and a half years on similar charges. Two of their predecessors also did time, and another one was indicted but acquitted. More not-very-new-news. From now on, maybe I should plan to start writing sheer fantasy of various fictional and nonfictional varieties, just to keep the boys in the basement awake when I have time to write.

Oh, and one more bit of not-very-new-news: Kathleen Sebelius has overruled the FDA and chosen not to make the “morning after” pill more readily available. No doubt the Obama administration is choosing its battles carefully these days. But it bothers me that the religiously-affiliated lobbies that have worked so assiduously to make access to contraception more difficult have not uttered Word One about the evils of prescribing Viagra for unmarried males. So much for a consistent sexual ethic which is not to be viewed as anti-woman.

In the meantime:

Raisin Consciousness

Physicists say that time

Is what keeps everything from happening at once.

But holidays

Are what keeps everything from feeling as if it’s happening at once.

Holidays are like the raisins in rice pudding.

Without them, it turns into a glutinous untextured mass.

The raisins add texture,

And sometimes, sweetness.

A good holiday to you all. Peace and light,

The Wired Family

What Should Vargas Have Done?

September 23, 2011

I spent nearly twenty years teaching a course on “professional standards for mental health workers,” which was essentially a course on professional ethics. While we spent a lot of time talking about medical ethics, because historically all professional ethics start with the Hippocratic Oath, we also looked at the ethics of other professions or quasi-professions. For some reason, we never got around to journalism. Which is just as well, because I would have been tempted to inquire about the ethical status of the age-old question, “How did you feel, Mrs. Jones, when you saw your baby eaten by the tiger?” (I did, at one point, ask a couple of faculty members at the local school of journalism, who said they always tell their students that no good reporter would ask such a question. Yeah. Right.)

But now we’re hearing a lot about the professional ethics of journalism, in the context of Jose Antonio Vargas, a respected reporter whose “coming out” as an undocumented alien was recently published in the NYT magazine. His parents sent him here when he was 12 years old; he was raised in California by his grandparents. He didn’t know he was illegal until he was 16, and used fake documents to survive after that. He published his story to contribute to the current debate about immigration. But in the course of doing that, he has raised some issues in a heretofore mostly dormant debate about journalistic ethics.

First, let’s talk about the basic ethical issues. “Vargas has been living a lie at least since he was 16. What does that do to his credibility, including his credibility as a journalist? How can we believe anything he says?” people are asking. Not unlike the people who asked how anybody could believe anything Bill Clinton said after he lied about having sex with Ms. Lewinsky. Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, as the Romans said. The Romans were pretty good liars themselves, probably including whoever coined that adage. (Not to be confused with my father, a strong believer in the professional ethics of his profession, accounting, who once told me “Schlock in uno, schlock in omnibus,” by which he meant that somebody who screws around with IRS is probably also violating OSHA, the Clean Air Act, the child labor laws, and the Ten Commandments. Which my own professional experience finds quite credible.)

“Living a lie.” Until recently, most homosexuals lived a lie, too. Before them, during the McCarthy era, many American leftists lived a lie. And before them, back into the earliest beginnings of recorded history, so did adulterers. At various times, the religiously heterodox have had to live as liars, in the face of the Inquisition or similar organizations. During the American Revolution, many patriotic colonials, on both sides, “lived a lie.” Possibly including many of our now-revered founding fathers. I doubt that we have become any more honest since then. What has changed are the penalties for homosexuality, leftist politics, unpopular religious and political beliefs, and adultery. At one time or another, all of them have been capital offenses. More recently, they have been grounds for being deprived of employability, social respect, love, friendship, and companionship. Whoever formulated these penalties probably wasn’t hoping to be able to eliminate homosexuality, adultery, wrong-headed religions, or leftist political thinking. They just wanted to make sure that anybody who engaged in them had to lie about it. Which made such people vulnerable to all kinds of blackmail, some of it quite lucrative for people “in the know.”

For an adolescent who has just discovered that his presence in the country he has lived in for most of his conscious life is illegal, the issues are more complicated. What should the kid have done? Turned himself in at the nearest INS office (as it was then designated)? I have no idea what its functionaries would have done, back then. Probably the local migra was as clueless as Vargas himself. They might just have sent him back to his grandparents, rather than deal with all the paperwork. Or they might have locked him up and sent him back to his native country (the Philippines, I think) without a word to his grandparents or anyone else who knew where he had been living. Either way, I have real trouble believing he had any ethical obligation to submit himself to the dubious attentions of INS or any other government agency.

But at some point, apparently, he did make a deliberate choice to remain in the US, go to college, and adopt a profession without first attempting to regularize his situation. I am willing to accept for the sake of argument the proposition that that particular profession required special attention to truthfulness, although you may imagine my skepticism. I am not willing to accept that the professional journalist is obliged as such to be more open about his personal life and circumstances than any of the rest of us. I assume that the profession includes as many adulterers, tax cheats, and guys who tell girls they meet in bars that they will call them in the morning, as any other occupation. I don’t recall hearing any of these nefarious propensities being punished or even deplored any more among journalists than among cops, trash collectors, bartenders, or janitors. I don’t recall any article in the Columbia Review of Journalism advocating that they should be. Am I missing something?

Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus is nonsense. We all know this. Every one of us has situationally relative standards of truthfulness. Most of us will lie about trivia, and about the details of our own personal lives and those of our near and dear. Some of us will embellish our resumes, and most of us in positions of responsibility in the business world will embellish the prospects of applicants for employment (“this job requires some typing, but you won’t just be a clerk…”) and virtually all of us will inflate our esteem for people we have just met. But we all know the difference between the level of veracity prevalent among ordinary reasonable persons and what we are likely to hear from real liars. We also know the difference between deliberate knowing falsehood and mere “reckless disregard” for the truthfulness of a particular statement (the difference, let us say, between Oliver North and Michelle Bachman.)

And most of us also know that society will cut some slack for the reformed sinner, or liar, who eventually comes clean, if only to encourage others to do the same. It’s sound social and moral policy. Some of us even realize that the immigration policy of the United States is more openly subject to the application of clout (in the form of private acts of Congress) than almost any other area of our government, and that Vargas, given his professional eminence, is very likely to benefit from such clout and be safely legalized by the time ICE (as it is now known) gets around to dealing with him. It would be nice if more of us were also aware that being in the United States illegally is not the same kind of violation as, say, mother-stabbing or father-raping, and should not subject those who commit it to the full penalties of outlawry in the original sense of the word. Enough already, let’s concentrate on real lying and real crime, especially among those who have had the benefit of being born in the USA.

Red Emma

The Face of Innocence?

July 7, 2011

I’ve been engaged in a four-day Continuing Legal Education marathon, so I haven’t paid much attention to the Casey Anthony trial (unlike the OJ trial, which I actually used as material for the college English classes I was teaching at the time.) But last night I got seriously overdosed with it on the news and Nightline and Frontline. And once I finished working today, while checking my email, I stumbled across the proposed text of “Caylee’s Law” (which would make it a felony for parents to fail to notify police within 24 hours of a child’s disappearance or within an hour of a child’s death.) For those of you who have been residing under foreign rocks for the past 20 years or so, it has become standard American practice to respond to any really outrageous crime, especially if the victim was a child, by passing new laws to keep that particular crime from recurring, and name the law after the victim in question. This raises Mother Jones’ maxim “Don’t mourn, organize” to a new level of literality.

Well, never mind that constitutional law expert Lawrence Tribe says “Caylee’s Law” would probably not pass constitutional muster, as it seems not to further any properly authorized federal purpose. The public’s problems with Caylee’s case are pretty much the same problems they had with the OJ trial, and the Susan Smith trial, and a whole bunch of others in between. Specifically:

1) The public saw a completely different narrative of the crime than the jury did. The trial narrative the jury saw was flattened out by the exclusion of all kinds of evidence that was fair game for the media outside the courtroom—stuff that one side or the other or the judge on his own motion excluded as irrelevant, prejudicial, or just plain boneheaded, but that the public absorbed in order to formulate its understanding of what really happened. Having formed that narrative, the public either can’t understand that the jury saw an entirely different set of facts, or is also outraged that the jury didn’t get to see and hear what the rest of us did.

2) The public, like Aristotle, believes that character is destiny. It is mere commonsense to believe that bad things are done by bad people. Proving that a defendant was a bad person is sufficient to convict her of a bad act. And, moreover, even if she didn’t exactly commit that particular bad act, we are better off if she gets locked up so she can’t commit her inevitable next bad act in our community.

3) The Anthony trial certainly did a good job of proving that Casey was, if not a bad person, at least a serious wack job. So, apparently, are most of the members of her family. (BTW, who was Caylee’s father? Apparently we don’t know. If we are to believe, as Casey’s attorney tells us, that Casey was a victim of incest, is that somehow connected to the paternity issue? And why was nobody else in the family speaking to Casey’s brother? Could he have been the child’s father?) The jury may have found the oddities of Casey and her family grounds for mitigation of responsibility. The public, however, seems to think they are, if anything, factors in aggravation. Crazy people scare us. Lawyers may think that proving a defendant too wacked-out to be responsible for his crime means he should be released. The rest of us think that a defendant who is that wacked-out is too dangerous to be out on the streets. A middle position, that such a person should be locked up for appropriate treatment, is hard to sell, because most of us know just how difficult it is to get somebody hospitalized for mental illness for long enough to treat it adequately. As a result, the two largest mental health facilities in the country now are the Cook County Jail and the Los Angeles County Jail.

4) It seems most likely that the jury simply found the evidence insufficient to convict Casey of anything but lying to the police. Ever since the OJ trial, we have been hearing jeremiads about how demanding juries are getting, demanding not merely absence of reasonable doubt, but an airtight case, in order to convict. The case against her was largely circumstantial, and just about every element of the prosecution’s evidence was susceptible to explanations other than Casey’s guilt.

5) It would be interesting to run a study, over the last 40 years or so, of how judges and juries treat mothers charged with killing their children, as opposed to fathers charged with the same offense. OJ, unfortunately, was not an infanticide case, so the gallows humor with which the public followed it doesn’t necessarily prove anything, as compared with their attitude toward Casey, or Susan Smith, or even Andrea Yates. But it is easy to suspect that the double standard cuts especially hard against women in these cases.

6) Which, for some reason, brings to my mind Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Heart of Midlothian, which turns on a Scottish law against infanticide, passed in 1690: “Any woman who shall conceal her being with child during the whole time of her pregnancy, and shall not call for, or make use of, help in the birth, is to be reputed the murderer, if the child be found dead or missing.” Sir Walter, BTW, had training in the law, and bases the novel on an actual occurrence in his day (early 19th century.) His account admittedly stretches credulity, by demonstrating that a woman could be guilty of the conduct described in the Act and still bear no responsibility for the death of the child, and indeed, that the child might ultimately turn out not to have died at all. Which is pretty much the kind of argument Casey’s attorney made, and the jury accepted, though the public didn’t.

7) But I guess what I find most disturbing was the reaction of the crowd outside the Orlando courthouse when the verdict was announced. Two generations earlier, it would have been the makings of a lynch mob. The crowd was demanding “justice for Caylee,” as if that poor child were not far beyond whatever human justice could offer, and now in the hands of the Ultimate Mercy. The prosecution kept claiming to “represent the victim,” which I believe is a serious mistake in prosecution philosophy. The victim, or some family member, is free to file a civil case against the putative criminal who victimized her, and to receive whatever justice is available in monetary terms. In increasing numbers of criminal cases, civil justice is also being pursued, and that is all to the good. But the goal of a criminal case is not justice for the victim. It is justice, and safety, for the community, which is who the prosecution is really supposed to represent. The damage to the victim, and even to her family, can never be made to “unhappen.” No amount of punishment of the victimizer will accomplish that. If we cannot accept that in some way the Holy One will someday wipe away all tears from our eyes, we have to live with the injustice and hurt that the criminal has done to the victim and to all of us.

8) The footage of the actual trial raises a couple of interesting questions:

a) Illinois is one of the few states that still forbids televising most court proceedings, on the usual grounds that the camera will bring out the ham in all the participants. I find those arguments unpersuasive. In the first place, with or without cameras, trial lawyers are hams. It is part of their job description. In the second place, most people, whether professionals or merely parties and spectators, get used to the camera enough to mostly forget about it, very quickly. And the Founding Fathers believed very strongly in public trials (as public as the technology of the 18th century could make them, anyway) for very good reasons. We need to know what our justice system is doing in our name, for our presumed benefit, and on our money. Seeing it at work should not be a privilege reserved for professional spectators such as journalists, or dedicated amateurs such as retiree law buffs.

b) And finally, the law says that the jury is entitled, or even required, to take into account, as evidence side by side with smoking guns and weeping witnesses, the demeanor of the defendant. I watched Casey go from grave to stone-faced to laughing to crying and round about again, and I wondered what conclusion the jury was drawing from her demeanor. I have heard people say that a defendant “looks guilty” for smiling, or not smiling; for showing emotion, or not; for responding with visible anger to being bad-mouthed by the prosecution and its witnesses, or not. If you get a chance, watch Meryl Streep’s performance in “A Cry in the Night” (drawn from a true incident, also about a mother accused of killing her child) and how much dislike she draws from the public for her apparent lack of emotion. But hysterics can have the same result. The problem, so far as I can tell, is that we have no idea how an innocent person behaves. Maybe this is because we really don’t believe in innocence, at least in the context of a criminal court. If the defendant is charged with Aggravated Mopery, or whatever, that generally goes pretty far to convince us she is guilty. The fact that the Anthony jury managed to transcend this presumption speaks astoundingly well for them. Maybe there’s hope for us after all.



May 29, 2011

Recommended Reading

I have a client who now resides in a nursing home and is in the early-to-middle phases of dementia. She is also a sci-fi fan, so whenever I clean out my bookshelves, I take the proceeds to her. I am discovering that, while that improves the quality of my life, it doesn’t necessary change hers all that much. Because one of the few so-far-unheralded upsides of dementia, at least in its early phases, in that you get what I have always wanted—multiple opportunities to read the same book for the first time.

Among the books I have especially wanted multiple shots at in this way are John Brunner’s line of speculative novels: Stand on Zanzibar (1968), Jagged Orbit (1970), The Sheep Look Up (1972), and The Shockwave Rider (1975.) And I spent a fair amount of time wishing there was somebody around right now who writes that kind of stuff, preferably in batches rather than an occasional one-off like Orson Scott Card’s Empire and Hidden Empire (okay, that makes them a two-off, I guess.) I think I’ve found one—John Barnes, author of Mother of Storms, Directive 51, and The Man Who Pulled Down the Sky.. Unlike Brunner and Card, he does dabble in the Irwin Allen school of writing (one damn disaster after another), but in the process he takes a serious look at the trajectories of current social, technological, economic, and political phenomena. Consider this a recommendation.

The Unknowing God

For a period that lapped over into my college years, the existentialists told us that the human race is engaged in a frantic effort to become god. As I think about it these days, I am increasingly convinced that many of us already are god, and we are failing to notice it (and falling down on the job) to a dangerous extent. Me, for instance. Most of my days I spend working, on the phone, on the computer, at the office, in court, at home running around finding things (and of course losing things and not realizing it till later), shopping, and so on. If in the middle of all this, I sit down and call the Wired Cat, and she comes over to me, sits down at my feet, and reaches out her front paw to pat my leg, to which I respond by reaching down to rub her head between her ears and down to her neck, for her this is a religious experience. Her divinity has taken time out from managing the universe to communicate with, relate to, and pleasure her. Sometimes, like most divinities, I do things she really doesn’t like, such as taking her to the vet. She seems to accept this as good for her in some way that I understand and she doesn’t. She’s lucky enough to have a divinity who doesn’t do any of the awful things to her that one hears about on Animal Planet (Mr. Wired is an Animal Cops junkie and a hard-core groupie of Anne-Marie Lucas.) But if it did, she’d probably accept that too, as most domestic animals seem to. The ones who have been too utterly traumatized retreat into the animal counterpart of atheism—the feral life. (Atheism is not actually the right word—I am not the first to wonder if there is a word for somebody who believes in the Holy One but just doesn’t like H* very much.)

And of course, to our children, and to most of the children we come into extended contact with (as teachers, for instance, and maybe as pediatric health professionals), we are also god. (Note the lower-case initial, used—as Grace Slick explained when she named her kid “god”—so we won’t get stuck-up about it.) So far as the kids can tell, we (especially parents but adults in general to a considerable extent) run the universe, and occasionally take time out from doing that to interact with the kids, for better and for worse.

The Bible actually plays with this idea. For instance there are two or three references to judges as gods. (One suspects some of the human authors of these passages spent some time on the bench themselves—certainly ordinary human judges have always tended to see themselves as some kind of deity.) Moses is told that he is going to be “in the place of G-d” to Pharaoh, and that his smoother-talking brother Aaron will be his “prophet.”

And there is a story about a rabbi (Hasidic, I think) who, upon being told that somebody he knew was an atheist, said something like “Well, that’s good. It means that if he sees somebody who is poor or in trouble, he won’t just say ‘G-d will help him,’ he’ll get up and actually do something for the guy.” Even professionally religious people may have a kind thought for people who, not believing in a divinity, feel obliged to fill in for H*.

Which, if you accept the hard-core deterministic schema of the behavior of all non-human entities, means that human beings and their actions are the only preserve of free will in the universe, and thus also the only rational place for the divine to operate, by inspiration and impulse. Many rational religious people have trouble believing that the Holy One has ever made the sun stand still or water run uphill, but will accept a divine push toward extraordinarily decent human behavior—in other words, that we are not exactly in the hands of G-d, sometimes we are the hands of G-d.

Jane Grey
War is the End, part II

Does anybody else remember the study that told us we could have won the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people by giving $10,000.00 to every man, woman, and child in that country, and still have spent less than the $686 billion we actually spent on the war? (Another sourcing problem, obviously.) Anyway, Cecil Adams, of “The Straight Dope” has heard from a history scholar who says the North could have bought and freed all the slaves in the then-US for something like $72 billion in present-day dollars, which was also considerably less than the overall cost of the Civil War, especially if you reckon costs and damages on both sides, which of course all ultimately came out of US GNP. This once more tells us that wars are almost never “about” their official causes and purposes, which could almost always be implemented a lot more cheaply, easily, and with less violence. War itself, or some so far unknown concomitant of war, makes it an irreplaceable element of human polity.

Red Emma

Life Among the Condonauts

I just opened a mysterious envelope from a fellow resident of our condominium building, to discover that, as a member of the condo association, the Wired Household is being sued by another member of the association and by our really heroically estimable janitor, for the alleged misconduct of the erstwhile chair of the association, our upstairs neighbor. This is a peculiarity of condo law-—in order to obtain a remedy for some misbehavior by condo association officers, you have to sue the association, even if you are a member of it. Which means that you are, in a sense, suing yourself. You are certainly costing yourself money. All the costs of defending the suit come out of the pockets of the residents. We could even wind up paying the costs of the other side. This damn thing has got to be mediated, ASAP.

I am the only attorney I know who lives in a condo (for 31 years now) and has never served on the board. I really want to keep it that way. Lawyers are easy marks for pleas of communal obligation. But condo boards are a time sink. I just sent a frantic email to the plaintiffs asking them to please consider mediation. Yikes!


War is the End; the State is the Means

April 27, 2011

Just finished reading Nicholson Baker’s piece on pacifism in the latest Harper’s. It dovetails nicely with some other thinking I’ve been doing lately. Specifically, I’m remembering the ten years of the Vietnam War, and what it felt like at the time, and trying to figure out why Americans, even those most opposed to the current ten-year wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are so much less passionate in their opposition than we were to the Vietnam War. One of the major differences, of course, is that we have no military draft today.

I was very active in the struggle against the draft during the Vietnam War, and got the ultimate rush, 20 years later, when one of my students, in a discussion of relatively recent history, literally could not remember the words “draft” or “conscription.” By George, I thought. We really did it! Many of my more radical friends and colleagues, at the time, predicted that ending the draft would take a lot of the juice out of opposition to any future wars. I allowed that they were probably right, but that even so the unspeakably hard choice to kill or not kill ought not to be forced on any unwilling person. I still believe that. But it’s obvious that, without a draft, this war, or the next or the next after that, could conceivably go on forever. That’s how all those European wars—the Seven Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, the Hundred Years’ War—got to be so interminable. They were not fought with conscript armies. Neither were the conquests that built and maintained the Roman Empire over 400 years, or the British Empire for 200+ years..

Baker takes up the issue based on what most of us have seen as the ultimate hard case against pacifism, the Second World War/the Holocaust. If you assume, as most of us have after the fact, that the war was necessary to save what was left of the Jews in Europe, then how could one argue against it? What originally disabused me of that notion was reading Arthur Morse’s While Six Million Died, published in 1967. Subsequent research only strengthens the premise of that book—the Second World War may or may not have put an end to the slaughter of the Jews of Europe, but it clearly was not fought for that purpose. We need to disentangle the war from the Holocaust to make sense of either of them.

In point of fact, to be sure, the Holocaust and World War II went on at more or less the same time, and were instigated by a lot of the same people. But they were very different phenomena. They gave rise to very different responses (even from the same people.) And, while they were causally inextricably related to each other, that relationship was almost unimaginably complex. The war provided a pretext for the Holocaust, as war almost always provides a pretext for oppression (up to and including murder) of noncombatant minorities, viz. the Armenians. And the Holocaust, ultimately, obstructed the Nazi conduct of the war, probably fatally. Hitler wasted resources on killing Jews and other “inferior” races that he could have devoted to beating the Allies. (Which may partially account for the reluctance of the Allies to do anything that might have impeded the Holocaust.) He expelled from Germany the Jewish and anti-Nazi scientists who might have given Germany the nuclear bomb. The Six Million, arguably, were martyrs to the Allied victory. Without their deaths, that victory might never have happened.

Those who opposed the Nazis at the time, both in Germany and elsewhere, opposed them, not because of their treatment of Jews and other minorities, but for pretty much the same reasons the Allies had opposed Germany in World War I and the democratic forces in Germany had opposed the Kaiser. Hitler was well on the way to conquering the world. In the course of doing so, he had eliminated most of the hard-won democratic rights enshrined into law in the Weimar Republic. Which is what happens to the civil liberties of citizens in almost any war. Good enough reasons, to be sure, and by no means to be sneered at. But even the staunchest anti-Nazis, at home and abroad, at best had little concern for the Jews, and at worst viewed the racist Nuremberg Laws as one of Hitler’s few good moves. This was as true of anti-Nazi resistance in occupied countries as in Germany itself. Indeed, there were anti-Nazi partisan units in Eastern Europe that killed Jews in their spare time, when Nazi-fighting got slow.

The British found it inconvenient to notice the plight of the Jews, because they were being called on to respond by opening up Mandate Palestine to Jewish refugees, at the expense of British relations with the Arabs. The Americans stayed out of the war until Pearl Harbor was bombed, fortuitously, by the Japanese–because American public opinion tended to side with the Germans against the Jews, but could easily enough be swayed against non-whites who had had the nerve to bomb American territory. The French had no choice but to respond to the invasion of their territory–but their struggle against the Nazis stopped short of any serious effort to protect French citizens of Jewish ancestry, much less alien Jewish refugees from further east. Indeed, rounding up Jews was one of the few activities in which many of the French cooperated willingly or even enthusiastically with the Germans.

The allied War Crimes Trials in Nuremberg made clear what the Allies considered to be the real offenses of the Nazis: violation of treaties, making of aggressive warfare, and torture and murder of Allied prisoners of war. The Nuremberg trials had virtually nothing to say about Nazi treatment of enemy civilians, and nothing whatever about Nazi mistreatment and murder of German and Austrian citizens. It was left to the Israelis and the successor governments of the formerly occupied countries to prosecute those crimes. Obviously none of them were in any shape to do so until at least the 1950s. By then many of the major war criminals were safely hidden away on other continents.

The switching of gears came in the 1960s. It was partly precipitated by the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann (and Hannah Arendt’s in-depth coverage of it) between 1961 and 1963, and partly by the intensification of the Vietnam War. At that point, hawks, especially liberal hawks like the Henry Jackson faction of the Democratic Party, were holding up World War II as a shining example of a just war fought to protect a helpless minority against a marauding dictator, and a model for U.S. participation in the Vietnam War. It was the American war machine which, in the words of Herman Wouk, “kept my grandmother from being turned into soap.” Draft boards and congressional hawks stated over and over again that opposition to the Vietnam War was equivalent to the America Firsters’ opposition to American participation in World War II, which in turn was tantamount to endorsing the Holocaust. The “war crimes” actually tried at Nuremberg were hardly ever mentioned–except occasionally by anti-war advocates. Pro-war forces gave up their use of the Holocaust analogy only after the My Lai massacre, when it became fairly obvious that the U.S. military was killing at least as many civilians as the Viet Cong.

In the Vietnam and post-Vietnam rationale, the reason the Nazis were Bad People was their murder of helpless civilians, especially Jews. American World War II movies made in the ’60s and after often portrayed German soldiers who weren’t in the SS as “good Germans”, tragically honorable men doing what any patriotic citizen would do (including, presumably, aiding and abetting all the crimes prosecuted at Nuremberg), as opposed to the “bad Germans” who ran concentration camps. It might be inhumane to put civilians into concentration camps and gas them, but strafing, shelling, or dropping bombs on them from overhead was just a normal exercise of warrior morality, i.e., the same sort of thing our warriors were doing.

Getting back to Baker, he goes into considerably more detail than Morse about pacifist opposition, and the reasoning behind it, to American participation in World War II. Many of the pacifists of that era, including important Jewish spokesmen, accepted well before our time the premise that the purpose of any such participation was to save the European Jews, and by extension the Jews in the rest of the world not yet directly threatened by Hitler. But why not find some way to save the Jews that did not involve widening the war? they asked. “The Jews needed immigration visas, not Flying Fortresses. And who was doing their best to get them visas, as well as food, money, and hiding places? Pacifists were,” Baker points out. Moreover, if the purpose of the war was to stop Hitler, war might be precisely contraindicated. “…what fighting Hitlerism meant in practice was…the five-year-long Churchillian experiment of undermining German ‘morale’ by dropping magnesium fire-bombs and 2,000-pound blockbusters on various city centers. The firebombing killed and displaced a great many innocent people—including Jews in hiding—and obliterated entire neighborhoods. It was supposed to cause an anti-Nazi revolution, but it didn’t….If you drop things on people’s heads, they get angry and unite behind their leader. This was, after all, just what happened during the Blitz in London.”

Baker takes a perspective on the Holocaust that I found startling: that it was “the biggest hostage crisis of all time.” Hitler’s threats against the Jews of Europe were largely unfulfilled before the US entered the war. Many anti-war activists proposed negotiating at that point, when the US still had something to offer in exchange for the lives of Europe’s Jews. Holocaust historians Saul Friedländer and Roderick Stackelberg suggest that, although Hitler had long planned the killing of all Jews under German control, “its full implementation may have been delayed until the US entered the war. Now the Jews under German control had lost their potential value as hostages.” The first extermination camp, Chelmno, began operations, coincidentally (?), on December 8, 1941. Pacifist and near-pacifist advocates continued to call for “peace without victory”, an end to military operations in Europe on condition that the Jews be allowed safe passage out of Europe. It was not a popular suggestion among Allied politicians. Among the excuses for not even considering this possibility were Churchill’s statement that “[e]ven were we to obtain permission to withdraw all Jews, transport alone presents a problem which will be difficult of solution.” Anthony Eden, his foreign secretary, told the American Secretary of State that “Hitler might well take us up on any such offer, and there simply are not enough ships and means of transportation in the world to handle them.” This from the engineers of the Dunkirk evacuation two years earlier, who had gotten nearly 340,000 men from the French beaches to England in a mere nine days!

Baker is either a nicer person than I, or just more cautious. These lame obfuscations make it obvious to most modern readers that the Brits—and the US State Department—would not have wanted a massive influx of Jewish refugees even if all of them had somehow grown wings to fly themselves out of Europe. The real point was that both countries had a lingering substrate of anti-semitism to deal with, both in the general population and among their diplomatic apparatchiks in particular. Many of their citizens were likely to be lukewarm in their support of the war if they thought its purpose had anything to do with saving Jews. The diplomatic establishments were nice enough to consider acknowledging this in official communications to be a breach of etiquette, but not decent enough to overcome it with an offer to save Jewish lives. If the Jews were to be saved, the Anglo-Saxon alliance was declaring, it would have to be as an incidental—or perhaps even accidental–by-product of a war being fought for utterly different reasons.

If even World War II, for which the most noble and humanitarian purposes have since been adduced, was not in fact fought for those purposes, what does that say about the rest of the wars which have bloodied the world since humans first aglommerated into groups large enough to have wars? What are the real reasons for war?

The first and most obvious one is They hit Us first. Beginning with the first blood feud, this becomes problematic, because each “first blow” from Them always turns out to be a response to a pre-first blow from Us, and so on. So let’s abandon that game, or at least recognize it for the fraud it is.

The next most popular reason is They might hit Us first, if We don’t hit Them first,which is vulnerable to the same realities.

Then there’s if We don’t hit Them, Those Other Guys Over There might think We’re weenies and start hitting Us. In this age of universal publicity, it should be fairly easy to deal with this proposition without actually hitting anybody.

The fact that both sides, in any war, can come up with some reason for their behavior makes it pretty clear that those reasons are really nothing but excuses.

So if there are no bona fide purposes for war, why do we do it?

I suspect that this hypothesis isn’t even original, but war is not a means to achieve an end. If it were, many of those ends might be achievable by other means. Somehow, that never happens. Because war isn’t a means, it’s an end. Clausewitz to the contrary notwithstanding, war is not the continuation of politics by other means. It is the purpose of politics. It is the purpose of the nation-state (and the street gang, and the clan, and arguably the religion, and maybe even the family.) Domestic politics, and government, and the arts of peace are merely things to do in the interval between wars, to give the crew time and resources to break down the set, get the audience out, build up the new sets, find a new script and get all the lines learned, and then get the new audience in. In the American political context, the Republican party is more honest about this. The Democrats are willing to help us fool ourselves that we don’t choose war. Like Michael Corleone in his declining years, we just get pulled into it against our will because we’re such nice guys. The post-Vietnam series of wars and incursions—Panama, the Balkans, Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan—aren’t an aberration. Vietnam was the blip. Vietnam was the play to which we reacted as if it involved real people dying real deaths. Abolishing the draft has revived the concept of the “theater of war.” Vesti la giubba.

Red Emma

Same Old Song II; or Some Dilemmas of Democracy

April 5, 2011

We have never established a rule for when a reply is long enough to become a post, but I suspect this one may reach that limit. It is not merely the “defense” establishment that stays while presidents come and go, but a few other eternal verities.

One is that, while the House of Representatives is constitutionally entrusted with both the power of the purse and the power to make war, it has had no serious chance to use the two in tandem as the Framers intended for well over a century. This is partly a technological problem. As every grade-schooler who paid attention in American History knows, the Battle of New Orleans was fought well after the War of 1812 had ended in a peace treaty, simply because, at the time, communications were limited by the speed of horse and sail. Now, wars can happen, and be ended, literally in a blink of an eye. The power of the purse becomes merely the power to pay the debts already incurred during that blink. That’s the theoretical limit.

In real life, wars take a bit longer to get started, but nowhere near as long as getting a declaration of war through Congress. And the power of the purse becomes a nullity if we already have “boots on the ground” and Congress could accomplish nothing by refusing to fund them except to leave the boots on the ground with no resources to maintain or defend themselves or even catch the next flight home.

The second problem became apparent in the run-up to the First Gulf War. Amazingly, both houses of Congress seriously debated our entry into that war for several days, before actually embarking on it. The ultimate result was, of course, a nearly unanimous vote in favor of the war (see the next paragraph for explanation.) But a good deal of time was consumed by war advocates proclaiming that such debate was “premature” since the war had not yet broken out. Debate over the Vietnam War, which took place almost entirely after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, involved at least the same amount of argument that it was “too late” to deliberate whether the war was a Good Thing, since we were already in it. Apparently there is a split-second in time, known only to Stephen Hawking, when it is neither too early nor too late to debate entering a war. It probably happens at 4:30 AM Eastern time, when both houses of Congress are asleep in their beds.

The third problem is that, once the executive branch has decided on a war, they become not merely the object of patriotism but its voice, and anyone who disagrees becomes, at best, the loyal opposition or the honored but ignored voice of an outworn pacifism (like Jeanette Rankin, bless her soul), and at worst a pack of traitors. Often, even those who argued against the war in the early part of the debate end up voting for it in the end, to provide a show of “unanimity” in support of national goals.

The first thing those arguing against the war have to do is disclaim pacifism. Senator Obama himself did a fine job of this in his speech opposing the Iraq War, when he stated that he wasn’t against all wars, just against dumb wars. Being against all wars renders an American politician permanently unfit for office, since a pacifist Commander in Chief is a contradiction in terms. Being against unjust wars might leave a Catholic politician among the legitimate competitors, except that it has been a long time since the US was involved in a war that plausibly met the Augustinian qualifications for justice. Or, for that matter, an intelligent war.

The next thing an opponent of the currently debated war has to do is proclaim his loyalty to and support for our brave men and women in the field, no matter how pointless and iniquitous the task they are commanded to accomplish. As pointed out earlier, this utterly precludes using the power of the purse to stop the war, and thereby turns the constitution into a nullity.

Only then can the opponent start talking about the merits. One of the few issues that is still a matter for legitimate disagreement in such debates is whether we go to war alone or with allies. Bush Senior gets a lot less praise than he deserves for his coalition-building in the First Gulf War, which enabled him to fight that war mostly on other people’s money, and with no foot-dragging by the UN or NATO. It put us in the position of being a mercenary army for the Europeans and Japanese, who needed Kuwaiti oil a lot more than we did. But it left us in a considerably better financial position than Bush Junior’s device of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq “off the books.” These days, “multilateralism” has a bad name in some quarters. Real macho nations go it on their own—and on their own money, which they then borrow from the Chinese. This issue needs revisiting, preferably before we go to war with the Chinese.

The financial issue is rarely raised until the war is actually over. By that time, it is too late to ask whether we can afford it. All we can do is try to figure out how to pay for it. The last time we looked at the money issue up front was in World War II, when Roosevelt had already decided we had bloody well better pay for it. He spent most of the war borrowing the money from American citizens. Wars are not paid for out of discretionary income, because wars, once decided on, are not discretionary. The Vietnam War was paid for by short-circuiting the War on Poverty, and by inflating the currency, rather than by raising taxes as we had done during WWII. Shortly thereafter, we decided that inflation, like raising taxes, was a bad thing. Now we pay for wars by viewing every other item in the budget (now, apparently, including even Social Security and Medicare) as discretionary, and by not noticing inflation as long as it affects only ordinary working people.

The one great force of modern economics to which even the “defense” establishment is not immune is privatization of governmental functions. So far, it extends only to what would otherwise be considered “staff” and “logistics” functions of the military, such as food, housing, transportation, and intelligence. Oddly, the private-sector jobs thereby created don’t seem to make a dent in the unemployment statistics—is this another idea worth revisiting? Could we balance the economy by putting 5 million unemployed civilians to work peeling potatoes in Kabul, suffering all the dangers and difficulties of military service at minimum wage with no benefits, no job security, and no legal rights except those provided by the Uniform Code of Military Justice? Donald Trump, call your office.

And finally, the “defense” establishment has to deal with the problem posed by a former Secretary of Defense: you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want. Now, that apparently means that you go to war with a bunch of overfed, overweight, undereducated, unhealthy people, many of them with minor criminal records, who can’t find jobs in the civilian sector. Watch this space for announcements that Boot Camp has now become a Fat Farm, and Advanced Individual Training now starts with basic literacy. You heard it here first, folks.

Red Emma, with assistance from her beloved brother, Ben Trovato

It’s the Same Old Song…

April 4, 2011

Maybe it’s the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Or one of the pale imitations that sprang up in WWII. One of the ever-so-alluring melodies of a “good war.” Given half a chance, most of us—and even worse, most of our presidents–really want to be the good guys in somebody else’s revolution, the Lafayette to somebody else’s Washington. We may have other motives lurking underneath, like oil, but that one is the hardest to ignore. And now Obama, whom I would have expected to be immune to that nostalgic passion, has been hit hard by it.

It shouldn’t surprise me all that much. In 1964, my first election, I voted for Johnson precisely because he was such a seasoned politician. Too self-interested, I thought, to blow up the world. Nobody blows up the world out of self-interest. Clausewitz says so. (What he actually says is something like he is presuming that the opposing parties do not possess any weapon capable of utterly destroying each other, which is why it’s reasonable to consider war a pursuit of politics by other means.) And so long after the fact, it’s hard to figure out how much self-interest and how much yearning for a good war comprised his motivation for lying us into Vietnam. But it is absolutely clear that he was motivated by both.

And then there was Jimmy Carter, who apparently thought the Ayatollah was a brave and saintly rebel against the evil Shah, until the American hostages got locked up. Everything that happened after that was fumbling, because he still had a hard time grasping how the Iranian Revolution had gone wrong (or maybe, that it had never gone right in the first place.)

And even Clinton, who insisted on intervening in the Balkans based on the really awful things the Serbs were doing to everybody else in the neighborhood—where, I asked myself, was the draft dodger I had voted for?

Of course, Woodrow Wilson, who “kept us out of war” just long enough to get re-elected before getting us into WWI, wasn’t a particularly great example either. The only president I can recall who promised to get us out of a war and actually did it was Eisenhower.

All of this should be going up on the wall beside my list of never-believes, like “Never trust a person who says ‘trust me.’” Or, as Nelson Algren says, “never eat at a place called Ma’s, never buy a used car from a man who calls himself Honest John, and never sleep with anybody who has more troubles than you do.” Never vote for a presidential candidate who promises to get or keep us out of a war, unless you really want a war.

Is there a chance Libya won’t turn into another Iraq? Apparently, Ghadafy is trying to work things out diplomatically, preferably by letting his son inherit and sort of clean up the family business. It might even work. But we ought to have figured out by this time that, when you elect somebody to an office that includes the title of Commander in Chief, you’re handing a gun to a 12-year-old, and the best you can hope for is that he knows how to use it without shooting anybody he’s not trying to hit.

Daniel Ellsberg has a slightly different take on all this. For him, it’s not the title or the frills that turn a rational animal into a predator. It’s the super-classified information you get, that almost nobody else has access to:

“First, you’ll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess. In particular, you’ll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn’t know about and didn’t know they had, and you’ll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

“You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t….and that all those other people are fools.

“Over a longer period of time — not too long, but a matter of two or three years — you’ll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn’t tell you, it’s often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.

“In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?’ And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I’ve seen this with my superiors, my colleagues….and with myself.

“You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.” (

Oddly enough, the History Channel, and writers like Dan Brown, may be our best defense against this problem. They tell us up front that our world is run by an intersecting cabal of hidden rulers who know things the rest of us will never know because they will never permit us to learn them. The Secret Brotherhood of the Tasmanian Illuminati is as good an explanation as any for what happens to American presidents once they get elected. Dan Brown and his ilk seem to have a plan to overthrow the Secret Brotherhood—subvert some of the people best qualified to belong to it, before they come to power. Sneak people into Harvard, and Princeton, and Skull and Bones, and Opus Dei, who will survive the initiation without losing their moral compass. People like Dan Ellsberg, in fact (alumnus of Harvard, the US Marine Corps, and the RAND corporation.) Bradley Manning doesn’t exactly fit this profile, nor does Julian Assange; technology may have changed the prerequisites for the job of mole in the Illuminati. But arguably, that’s the real purpose of a liberal arts education—to train both the next generation of the Illuminati and a few moles to keep them honest. In the meantime, if you are confronted with a choice between two presidential candidates, both more or less equally qualified except that one promises to end a war, or not to start one, you might as well flip a coin. You’ll get the same results.

Red Emma

In Praise of Folly

February 20, 2011

Item 1: So far, there’s one consequence of the 1995 government shutdown that I haven’t seen anybody mention. It was the direct cause of President Clinton meeting Monica Lewinsky. Ordinarily, she would never have spent any substantial amount of time in the Oval Office, as a mere intern. But when Congress shut off the money supply to the federal government, Monica, like all the other interns, suddenly became essential. She could continue to report to work, and even get enlisted to do things interns normally never did, because, unlike the civil servants who normally did them, she didn’t get paid. The pundits now discussing the possibility of another shutdown generally think the Republicans lost that round. If you factor in Monica, that’s not so clear.

Item 2: new entries on the Bennigan’s Index—of the two new eateries advertising their plans to open up within one block of my office, only one has actually done so. I’m getting really skeptical about the other, given that it’s been six months now. And in the meantime, two other cheap eateries in the next block have closed down. This is not encouraging. And of course, Giordano’s Pizza has just filed for bankruptcy.

Item 3: which leads one to wonder. Last year, several economists mentioned the second round of the Great Depression that started in 1937 as a direct result of Roosevelt cutting spending and raising taxes to reduce the deficit. This year, nobody’s talking about it at all. Instead, the GOP is suddenly utterly panicked about the deficit, which of course bothered them not at all when Bush was running it up in the first place.

Item 4: speaking of which, Mr. Wired is watching the SyFy [sic] Channel marathon of disaster movies, which this week is mostly about snakes gone wrong. Roger Ebert once characterized a certain genre of films as “idiot movies,” in which every time a character had to make a choice, it was always the stupidest choice possible. Most of the SyFy disaster films are more like the Ten Little Idiot genre, in which we watch a whole series of characters make such choices, and we get to bet on which one is still standing at the end. Not unlike presidential primary season, except that even the meanest monster snake is still kind of pretty, compared with many politicians.

Item 5: And Republican Congresscritter Mike Beard (see seems to think that if he eats all the pie, G-d will put another one in front of him. Didn’t the Greeks have myths about this?

Red Emma