Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Pining for the Fjords

Like most puffed-up liberal snobs in these United States, I spent part of the morning imperiously examining the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq through my bejeweled lorgnette, while uttering disapproving little clucks.

There's a lot to cluck about, too. Dr. Jeffrey Lewis has found some factual problems with it, and also criticizes it in terms that delight an effete, impuissant dandy like myself:

The document itself is an offense to the orderly mind, a mish-mash of arrows, bullet points and checkmarks that often violate the convention against “dividing” points into fewer than two subpoints.
The Strategy really does come across like a first-draft marketing plan for some struggling start-up business. It's disorganized, confusing, and repetitive; it's mindnumbingly attentive to obvious or unimportant points (e.g., the value of success), and maddeningly vague where one wants real details. Basically, it describes the successes we've achieved through being successful, and anticipates new successes that will reward us for our continued success, so long as we overcome the challenges posed by threats, which we're fully intent on doing, because failure is not an option when one's aim is to succeed.

In other words, it's a typical work of utopian imagination, in which the worthiness of the goal is supposed to stifle objections about the lack of progress towards it, and the practical and moral obstacles that make achieving it unlikely or indefensible.

One section, amazingly, is headed "The Benefits of Victory in Iraq." It's incredible that we're three years into a war of choice, the absolute wisdom and necessity of which has been proclaimed nonstop by the Administration and all its dead-eyed minions, and they're still worried that Americans haven't grasped the concept that Freedom is doubleplus good. Business acumen is supposedly one of the things that makes BushCo fit to run the country, so they ought to know that you can't overcome buyers' remorse by harping on what your shoddy product would do if it worked properly. When it comes to blithely dishonest salesmanship, the pet-shop owner in Monty Python's "dead parrot" sketch has nothing on these folks.

"The Consequences of Failure" is another interesting section (not least because a couple of the consequences are currently in in evidence). One of the consequences it warns about is that Iraq could become
A safe haven for terrorists as Afghanistan once was, only this time in some of the world’s most strategic territory, with vast natural resources to exploit and to use to fund future attacks. A country where oppression – and the brutal imposition of inhumane practices, such as those of the Taliban in Afghanistan – is pervasive.
In other words, I guess, it'll turn out like our staunch ally (and indulgent creditor) Saudi Arabia.

The document also says that failure will
[call] into question American credibility and commitment in the region and the world. Our friends and foes alike would doubt our staying power, and this would damage our efforts to counter other security threats and to advance other economic and political interests worldwide.
Now, we can argue about whether this is justified or not, but it's a plain fact that under Bush, America's credibility in the region and the world has suffered far worse calamities than being "called into question." Maybe it's reasonable to worry about what our friends and foes think of our "staying power" in an adventure that the majority of them view as ill-conceived and reckless...but if so, this does a great deal to demonstrate why the war was a bad idea. We're shackled by our inability to forfeit whatever credibility we have left, while terrorists and their ilk are free to wage a war of attrition on us, and humiliate us before the world. This outcome was worth considering before we invaded, I think.

BushCo has essentially blundered into Bin Laden's hands, and is now using the entirely predictable result of that blunder as an excuse for "staying the course" indefinitely. But Bin Laden understands, even if Bush doesn't, that corrupt wars of choice lacking strong public support are dangerous to the stability - and even the survival - of the countries that wage them (cf. the USSR). Far from being upset by the war in Iraq, he and his creatures are the only people likely to derive real long-term benefit from it, at least in the ideological arena.

The section on specific strategies for victory are about as vague as you'd expect. The most outrageous claim, to my mind, is that we are soon going to
Restore Iraq’s neglected infrastructure so it can meet increasing demand and the needs of a growing economy.
"Neglected" is right. And with clean water and electricity still unreliable or absent after three goddamn years, it's no wonder there's "increasing demand." Of all the vicious and corrupt things we did in Iraq, failing to rebuild, restore, and modernize infrastructure immediately - using Iraqi workers and engineers exclusively - is one of the worst. It was a major cause of social unrest, radicalization, and countless health problems for civilians; it provided an immediate, obvious disconfirmation of any rosy pronouncement BushCo and its Iraqi mouthpieces made about "progress"; it offered an ideal propaganda opportunity for Bin Laden and company; and it allowed profiteering firms to loot billions of dollars in tax money, without delivering anything approaching acceptable results.

The Administration's attempt to answer critics by announcing its inclination to address this problem - a problem it went very far out of its way to cause, and to exacerbate - tells you all you need to know about its interest in the well-being of the Iraqi people. It's also typical of BushCo's contemptuous, cavalier approach to communicating with the public and the world.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Distinction on the Cheap

Glossolalia, that emblem of special piety among members of the American hard right, has marked Thomas Sowell as one of God's Holy Fools.

Sowell has written a deliriously weird article about the cultural implications of children's names. The whole thing's worth reading, if you have any interest at all in verbal pathology. But I'll restrict myself to the highlights:

One of the ways some people seek special distinction today is in the names they give their children. Not only are the names themselves distinctive, these names remain distinctive only in so far as other people do not give their children the same names. So names today have a much faster rate of turnover than in the past.

Back in 17th century Massachusetts, more than half of all girls were named Mary, Elizabeth, or Sarah. Mary remained the most popular girls' name, nationwide, throughout the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. Today it is not even among the top ten.
I have to confess that I've never been bothered by our failure to adhere to the nomenclatural standards of 17th-century Massachusetts. But then, I lack the exquisite sensitivity of Thomas Sowell. My spiritual vision, after all, has been somewhat dimmed by the Cataracts of Common Sense. When it comes to penetrating the veil of everyday reality, I'm no match for a man who has donned the Spectacles of Madness.
What does all this mean?

Maybe it means that we are preoccupied with standing out -- without doing anything that merits our standing out. Maybe we want distinction on the cheap.

Maybe we don't even understand what an achievement is. There was a time when people who were neither rich, nor celebrities, nor outlandish in name or appearance, were nevertheless noticed and well regarded as pillars of their communities because of their personal qualities and character.
Oh, this is fine talk indeed. This is better than the circus.

Sowell is such an astonishing chump that he's actually chosen to invoke 17th-century New England as a golden era for sensible and modest names. The Puritans, of course, saw things a bit differently (as Sowell would recall if he'd bothered to dust off his copy of Charles Bardsley's Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature (1880).

Eager to stand out in a crowd, and to earn distinction on the cheap, a goodly number of Puritans gave themselves and their children what they called "grace names": examples include Lamentation, God-help, Concurrence, Hate-evil, Sin-deny, Waitstill, and - in one unhappy instance - Preserved Fish.

I realize that by suggesting that this information has some bearing on Sowell's argument, I reveal myself as an elitist of the worst sort, and actually strengthen Sowell's case. The conservative rules of engagement are clear on this point: If a lie is challenged by facts as recherche as these, it becomes a truth for all intents and purposes.

There's also a racial component to this problem, of course:
Blacks and whites used to give their children pretty much the same names. No more. Since the 1970s, racial segregation has returned, this time in names.
A bloody shame, too. If "Seamus" is good enough for the bog Irish, it ought to be more than good enough for the darkies. And what about the Jews? All those names like "Ezra" and "Hirschel"...they're just trying way too hard to be different, don't you think?

I'm sad to report that Sowell's somnambulistic shifts of mood and subject strongly suggest that he abuses laudanum (I'd never accuse a traditionalist like him of being a mere junkie).
Names are indicative of more than race....They are also indicative of values and attitudes in the families from which particular people came. So are other indicators. A lady working in an employment office contacted me a while back because her boss had told her to reject job applicants with gold teeth. She wondered if that was morally right.

I have had no experience hiring people with gold teeth, so I have no idea how reliable that is as an indicator. But, since the employer pays the price of being mistaken, it is his call, not mine.
I love how Sowell maintains such a sober, conversational tone while stumbling so aimlessly down his private Street of Dreams. But no sooner are we dazzled by this gratuitous vision of gold teeth than Sovell drags us back to cold hard reality:
Parents who think they are doing something clever or cute -- or just "making a statement" -- when they name their children might consider what the consequences might be later on. They might also consider giving their child some more solid foundation than a name for achieving something worthwhile in life.
Indeed. What could be more worthwhile for a child - a black child, in particular - than to make a career of cutting marionette capers for the foam-flecked ideologues at Human Events? You might be able to write arguments just as deranged as those of Thomas Sowell - in language just as stilted and incoherent - and you might be able to invent similarly specious "facts" to back them up. But if your name is Amadhou or Domevlo, the ultraconservative media are very likely to pass you by.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Christmas Under Siege!

(This post originally appeared on December 22, 2004. Unfortunately, it still seems timely.)

Once again, the Right has spoken with one voice - and can it really be true that there are people in this country who are not yet sick of that whining, wheedling, insinuating voice? - and declared a state of national crisis: Christmas is under siege!

Needless to say, as soon as the GOP's barrel-organ struck up its customary dirge, our media monkeys began turning cartwheels and swinging from lamp-posts and baring their nasty little teeth. "Can Christmas be saved?" they chattered. "Have liberals gone too far?"

Sane people thought, "They can't be serious. These people are not going to sit there with a straight face, week after week, and tell us that all good Americans must band together to 'save Christmas.'" But as usual, sane people were wrong.

I have some scatterbrained, fever-addled thoughts on why so much effort is being devoted to this imaginary War on Christmas (putting aside the GOP's ongoing project of hustling the fundamentalists for spare change, which has to be taken as a given whenever Der Kulturkampf is waged).

Let's begin with a simple proposition: You can't put people through an economic wringer, frighten the wits out of them with terrorism alerts, depress them with the horrors of a chaotic, aimless war, poison their minds with hatred against their fellow citizens, and expect to get a bumper crop of Christmas cheer in return.

If Christmas is besieged, it's largely because Americans themselves are besieged. For many people in this country, the difference between what life could be and what it is tends to become very stark at this time of the year.

Christmas is a time when people tend to brood about security. Surrounded by family, they tend to worry about their children, and about aging parents who may need special and expensive care. Burdens that are heavy at the best of times can become enormous. Problems become harder to hide, while the need to hide them increases.

When Christmas became an orgy of consumerism, it also became a test of one's earning power. As such, it's also a measure of one's security. These are tests that an increasing number of us can't help but fail in George W. Bush's America. For many Americans, the only way to celebrate Jesus' birth in the style to which he's become accustomed will be to contact the moneylenders in their temple, and ask for a higher credit limit.

Sad to say, Christmas often makes us feel we have something to prove. If our Christmasses were happy, then our children's must be every bit as happy, or heads will roll. And if our Christmasses were unhappy, then our children's must be perfect; no one - least of all the children themselves - can be allowed to stand in the way of the Christmas juggernaut, lest they be crushed beneath its tinsel'd wheels.

It's also true that a holiday dedicated to celebrating feelings that we've been encouraged by our leaders to devalue, or to give up entirely - like compassion, and a sense of community - is going to be a bittersweet affair at best. Christmas is one of the most explicit examples of how we replace emotions with things. But what happens when we can't afford these things, or when we can have them only by giving up some of our security, as we do when we go into debt? Anxiety and guilt, at the very least.

Meanwhile, the fundamentalist hand-wringing over Christmas shows how easily metaphysical truths get replaced with empty ritual. Dogma always fills the vacuum left by retreating or confounded faith; no society will be more observant of ritual - or more unforgiving of dissent - than one that has lost sight of whatever was good and true in its faith. What we're seeing in religious conservatism today is not some Great Revival, but the anxious bluffing of a spiritual tradition that's bet the farm on a pair of deuces.

What I'm saying, in a very roundabout way, is that Christmas is a tremendous machine for generating free-floating anxiety. It stirs up deep, deep emotions having to do with family, security, comfort, home, and community. These are things that the Bush administration has either failed to protect or attacked furiously in the last four years, and this has created still more anxiety; it hits people, very literally, where they live, in ways that they can't necessarily define or explain.

The Right's greatest talent - perhaps its only talent - is to ferret out such anxieties and exploit them. It pinpoints the things that make people feel scared or disappointed or resentful or insecure, and proposes reductive, self-serving, emotionally convenient causes and solutions for them.

Do you feel bad? Do you feel worried? Don't reflect, don't try to understand...just lash out at atheists and beat up on gays! After all, every second you spend thinking, you run the risk of blaming the wrong people for your problems.

The "Christmas Under Siege" story is a pre-emptive strike; the Right's power depends on deflecting negative feelings away from its vicious economic policies, obviously, but also on hiding its spiritual emptiness. Rather than be called Scrooges themselves, they've sensibly decided to go on the attack. As always with the Right, accusation is confession.

What strikes me about the antics of Bill O'Reilly, as he fights his lonely battle to save Christmas, is that Scrooge honestly hated the holiday, and therefore refused to celebrate it; he didn't pretend to love it more deeply and fervently than anyone else. While Scrooge talked of tossing the poor into prisons and workhouses, and extolled the primacy of business over everything else in life, he didn't pretend to be brimming over with holiday cheer. That's because he was an emotional cripple, rather than a sanctimonious hypocrite.

Dickens understood hypocrites inside and out, and populated his later books with them in great numbers, but he didn't portray Scrooge as one of those tight-fisted, vicious, selfish people who pretends to be generous and jolly and pious. I imagine that's because he wanted Scrooge's redemption to be believable. If there's a single pious fraud in Dickens who has stopped being a pious fraud by the last chapter, I can't think of who it might be. Bounderby in Hard Times, an astounding hypocrite who is essentially identical to Bill O'Reilly, is not only not redeemed at the end of the book, but (in one of the most unsettling denouements ever written), establishes a society dedicated to creating simulacra of himself, so that the world will never suffer for lack of his wisdom. Dickens understood the difference between a person whose goodness has been submerged or sidetracked, like Scrooge, and a person who has torn goodness out by the roots and consciously replaced it with a ghastly counterfeit, like Bounderby. Or Bill O'Reilly.

Is Christmas under siege? For families whose loved ones have been living under literal siege in Iraq, thanks to the incompetence and callousness of the Bush administration, the question must seem trivial. For every family that lost a loved one in Iraq this year, in a war that will stand as a monument to dishonesty and bad judgment, the question must be irrelevant. For every bereaved parent or spouse or child or sibling who was horrified this week by Andrew Card's unblushing praise of Donald Rumsfeld - an utterly heartless man whose capacity for conscious evil has so far been limited only by his incompetence - the question must be insulting beyond belief.

Not just these suffering people, but the whole sane world must be appalled at the self-involvement of this country as we debate whether we're able to enjoy Christmas as much as we should, at a time when we're sending our children to kill and be killed in Iraq.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Polycera fujitai, who makes her residence in that most eminent seat where the claws of Detraction do not reach, the lividness of envy does not poison, the shadows of error do not sink.

Friday Hope Blogging's off the menu this week (sorry, Diane!), but it'll be back - more charmingly naive and impractical than ever - in a mere seven days. In the meantime, I suggest that you bid dull care begone with booze, indiscriminate sex, or - if needs be - heroin.

Sentiment and Brutality

Echidne - blessed be her holy name - has dissected the New York Times' ongoing series of articles about the alleged postfeminist woes of professional women.

Before engaging specifically with the latest of these remarkably unpleasant articles, I have to say that I find it interesting that mainstream media's cultural critics always seem to know, as Jean Cocteau put it, "exactly how far to go too far." To question the claims and demands of "feminism" - or some ideologically convenient version of it invented for the occasion - is thought-provoking and subversive. To challenge the basic economic and sociological assumptions that put families - and women, in particular - in an agonizing, no-win position would be intolerably shrill (and, most likely, unfashionably Marxist).

As ever, our culture treats women and children with a bizarre mixture of sentimentality and brutality. In Victorian Britain, one of the worst evils of raising female children within the factory system was said to be its effect on the girls' future competence as "prudent and industrious" wives for (who else?) factory workers. An 1833 report to the Factories Commission sounds a typical warning:

Brought up in the factory until they are married...they are almost entirely ignorant of household duties.
Another investigator, writing in 1843, makes the same point with considerably more pathos:
It very frequently happens that when the working-man returns home to his dinner he finds it unprepared: his wife has been at her shop, and she leaves the cooking of her husband's dinner to a neighbour who has forgotten it, and the poor man is obliged hastily to swallow his half-cooked meal, and to return to his labour with his stomach loaded with indigestible materials.
Note that these women, as often as not, kept on working full-time after marriage. Like the women profiled in the New York Times, they found that family obligations clashed with their "careers," largely because their role as primary caregivers remained in full force regardless of their other responsibilities.

There was no easy solution to the domestic inadequacy of factory-workers' wives, given that child labor was at that time seen as a logical and necessary outgrowth of capitalism. In Factories and the Factory System (1844), W. Taylor Cooke makes this point in terms that we might find shocking today, despite the fact that they remain logically unexceptionable within the context of our own dominant economic theories:
We mean to assert that infant in fact a national blessing, and absolutely necessary for the support of the manifold fiscal burthens which have been placed upon industry in this country.
In terms of the most garish sentimentality, Taylor goes on to describe how poor unemployed children die in the gutter, in order to justify the brutality of the factory system, which keeps God's little angels from starvation by maiming them and working them to death.

The NYT pieces - especially the latest one, by Jane Gross - employ somewhat similar emotional tactics. Ms. Gross contrasts the pathos of aging, stricken parents who need tender care with the decadent selfishness of the career woman, while downplaying or excusing the brutality of an official culture that elevates amoral economic imperatives over family values.

The protagonist of this sentimental morality play, Mary Ellen Geist, has learned to survive "without urban amenities like white balsamic vinegar" in order to look after her ailing parents. Financial success, which is usually presented by our media as the just and inevitable reward for hard work and shrewd management of assets, is suddenly contemptible and shabby; as a career woman, we learn, Ms. Geist was little more than a coddled sybarite who lolled around guzzling white balsamic vinegar (along with who knows what other outlandish culinary desiderata gleaned from the pages of the New York Times). Only when biological destiny trumps the false consciousness of postfeminist ambition does she become a real person, instead of a caricature.

In one of the only sections of her article that comes across as morally neutral, Ms. Gross insouciantly describes what's actually going on:
Women, now as always, bear a disproportionate burden for elder care and often leave jobs, either temporarily or permanently, when the double duty becomes overwhelming, according to recent studies of family care-giving, women in the workplace and retirement patterns....Despite a growing number of men helping aging relatives, women account for 71 percent of those devoting 40 or more hours a week to the task, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP in a 2004 study. Among those with the greatest burden of care, regardless of sex, 88 percent either take leaves of absence, quit or retire.

"It is a safe assumption," based on an array of research, "that women are more likely to put their careers on hold or end them because of care-giving responsibilities," said Carol Levine, director of the Families and Health Care Project at the United Hospital Fund and an adviser to the National Alliance for Caregiving.
A feminist would call this a serious problem, and an injustice. Ms. Gross calls it the "Daughter Track," and presents it as a path to salvation for spoiled, self-centered urban hussies like Ms. Geist.

Isn't it altogether wonderful that our horrific healthcare system and deranged economic priorities allow career-obsessed whores to discover and display their hearts of gold, by foregoing "weekend wine tastings" in favor of elder care? As Echidne suggests, all this amounts to a cautionary bildungsroman for uppity women (and never mind that Ms. Geist's troubles have been substantially mitigated by the money she amassed during her "career woman" phase). As portrayed by Ms. Gross, Ms. Geist is not much more convincing than such stock figures of sentimental literature as the Drunkard Who Died Redeeemed on His Mother's Grave, and I'm afraid her story may fulfill a similarly brutal and dangerous social function.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Negotium Perambulans In Tenebris

What's that tattered heap lying upon these burning sands? Is it a mirage? A pile of old clothes? Or is it - God help us! - something that was once a man?

Steel yourselves for the worst, friends: It is Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media, who washed ashore on this godforsaken land a fortnight ago, and crossed its wastes on scorched and bleeding feet to tell us of a fearful massacre he witnessed with his own eyes.

After a few choking sips of water from a goatskin bag, his ravaged throat and blackened tongue give utterance to a tale of Evil so weird, so appalling, as to make the most diabolical intrigues of Dr. Fu Manchu read like a press release from the Kiwanis Club.

The "fair and balanced" network that usually gives conservatives a fair shake was taken over by radical environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr. and his liberal-left allies. Kennedy, a liberal lawyer and Democratic Party activist, became a "special correspondent" for an FNC special program on global warming that was so extreme as to be laughable....This was new territory for FNC, which is frequently accused of being a propaganda organ of the Republican Party.
Your eyes do not deceive you. Kincaid is claiming that because Kennedy appeared for one hour on the Fox News Channel, its ideological purity has been sullied, and it can no longer call itself "fair and balanced."

If you liked that inch, you've love this mile:
Kennedy, who had previously criticized Fox News and other "right-wing media" for misinforming the American people on critical public policy issues, has apparently changed his opinion.
Apparently so. It would've been far more consistent for Kennedy to denounce his own remarks as right-wing misinformation, by virtue of their presentation on Fox. Personally, I wouldn't trust myself to report my own name accurately while appearing on that network...that's how bad they are.
[T]he liberal-left managed to take over FNC, at least on a temporary basis, with the connivance of FNC chairman Roger Ailes, a long-time Republican.
"Temporary"? Let's not downplay the seriousness of this "hostile takeover" just because it only lasted an hour. Would it be a serious matter if a violent maniac broke into your house and held you and your family hostage for an hour, possibly even killing the family dog in front of your horrified children? Be honest, now.

As befits a pirate vessel, the liberal-left hoisted the skull-and-crossbones before launching its attack, announcing its intent to loot and scuttle the network, and give every man-jack the drink. This was a fearful sight, at which Kincaid understandably blanched:
A "disclaimer" was read before the show by a Fox News anchor justifying its slanted nature. She said, "Tonight we are presenting 'The Heat is On.' You'll hear primarily from those experts and citizens who believe that global warming is a crisis. Many people disagree with that statement. We will continue to investigate the science and hear from others in future Fox programming.
Kennedy was particularly ruthless; at one point, he even resorted to effete namecalling:
Kennedy was on FNC the day before the airing of the program to attack scientists who don't buy into his beliefs as "biostitutes." This smear was a clever play on the word "prostitute," suggesting that those opposing the Kennedy view have been paid off.
While I appreciate the tip on Kennedy's perfidy, I'm still not quite able to understand his exceedingly subtle play on words. Could you dumb it down a bit, Cliff?

Despite Kincaid's inability to understand the scientific consensus on climate change, and his unwillingness to admit that the ice floe upon which skeptics are marooned is melting, he still believes himself a fit arbiter of "rationality":
There has to be some rational explanation of what happened here. Did FNC chairman Ailes really find Al Gore persuasive? That's hard to believe. Or was putting on the program a clever strategy by Ailes? Did he realize that the environmentalists would make fools of themselves by going to extremes if he let them have the run of the network? The trouble with this theory, of course, is that the credibility of FNC was also damaged in the process.
This is no laughing matter. Fox could end up like the tiny desert town of Needles, California, which was forced to close down its zoo after the clam died.

We can all agree, I'm sure, that nothing screams "Accuracy in Media!" like a conspiracy-mongering paragraph full of blind quotes, and Kincaid uses this honorable strategy to excellent effect; he even puts a couple of his blind quotes in the passive voice, to create a truly impregnable fortress of ambiguity (don't try this at home, kids!):
Some observers think FNC turned its airtime over to Kennedy because he may be in a position to help or hurt them. It has been reported that Kennedy wants to run for high office in New York, where FNC parent News Corporation is based. FNC is said to be cozying up to New York Senator Hillary Clinton for the same reason.
Fair enough. Just as the nation that controls magnetism controls the universe, the politician that controls Manhattan controls Fox News. It's pikestaff-plain that Hillary has gotten to Ailes, possibly by injecting his truffle pâté with the heroin her husband peddles, or perhaps by offering him a nuit d'amour with herself and Rosie O'Donnell. Either way, the damage is done, and the only course of action left for the principled conservative is to shun Fox News Channel as a pestilence that walketh in darkness, and pin a last, forlorn hope on Pajamas Media.

As for Kincaid, poor devil...he was too far gone even for that. We left a service revolver in the sand before him, and went sadly on our way. It seemed the only Christian thing to do.

Be Very Afraid

POGO reports that the far right is once again overstating the threat of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. In an article in the Washington Times, Bill Gertz coaxes this typically outlandish quote from Frank Gaffney Jr.:

"This is the single most serious national-security challenge and certainly the least known," said Frank J. Gaffney Jr. of the Center for Security Policy, a former Pentagon official....
This is an especially generous serving of delirious nonsense from a man whose career stands in many respects as a monument to dishonesty and poor judgment. Gaffney inaugurated his career of evil by joining the staff of Washington state senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (aka the "Senator from Boeing") in the mid-1970s. With his chums Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, he labored mightily to scuttle arms-control talks and derail detente.

Ever since those halcyon days, overstating fanciful threats has been his method, and ineducable zealotry his madness. He still believes that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11 (as well as the Oklahoma City bombing and the first WTC bombing). He also claims that John Kerry is more responsible for the chaos in Iraq than George W. Bush, despite the fact that in the run-up to the invasion, he said that Bush would have to "[assume] all the risks such an action entails."

The only thing I've ever known Gaffney to be even tangentially correct about is his think-tank's suggestion that President George H.W. Bush was guilty of criminal wrongdoing in regards to arming Saddam. (As usual, George W. Bush seems to embrace people who detest his father. Odd, that.)

Anyway, POGO demolishes Gaffney and his fellow nude EMPerors:
If terrorists did manage to build a nuclear weapon it is highly improbable that they could produce an efficient EMP-producing nuclear weapon, according to nuclear physicist Richard Garwin, who also published one of the first theoretical papers on EMP. Philip Coyle, former Pentagon director of operational test and evaluation, emailed Global Security Newswire that even "the U.S. military does not know how to [create thermonuclear-scale EMP from a Hiroshima-sized weapon] today, and has no way of demonstrating the capability in the future without returning to nuclear testing." When the United States does not have this ability, needless to say, it's unlikely that terrorist or "rogue" states could easily accomplish such a technological feat.
One goal of EMP fearmongering is surely the production of public hysteria and belligerence. The real attraction, though, is the staggering amount of money that could be squandered on "defending America" against an EMP attack. I addressed some of the financial issues in an earlier post on this subject:
The Trestle EMP simulator at Kirtland AFB in New Mexico cost taxpayers almost $60 million in the late 1970s. Its purpose was to guide the design of effective EMP shielding (same with many aerial nuke tests in the late 1960s, if memory serves). If EMP still threatens us with annihilation, almost thirty years later, perhaps we ought to get at least a partial refund.

Apropos of which, we might want to revisit the findings of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project. According to their figures, the United States spent $13.2 trillion (in 1996 dollars) on national defense between 1940 and 1996. And it spent a further $5.5 trillion on nuclear programs, including missile defense (and therefore, including failed projects like the $25 billion Safeguard system, which was put out of its misery in 1976 by none other than Donald Rumsfeld).
POGO claims that the EMP crowd is estimating the cost of EMP protection at somewhere between 20 billion and 200 billion dollars. Nice work if you can get it!

Monday, November 21, 2005

A Banker's Discretion

The Washington Post would like you to meet Donald E. Powell, an inexperienced crony whom BushCo has put in charge of reconstructing New Orleans.

Powell is a self-made millionaire and lifelong Baptist who extols capitalism and ethics in speeches at business schools. When the White House called about the Katrina job, Powell said, he ignored doubters and cited a duty to serve.

"Most people said, 'You don't want to do that. The likelihood of failure is much greater than success,' " he said. "What they didn't know is, that's what really motivates me."

Powell, who pauses before speaking and squints when making a point, added: "There's always going to be pricking, shoving, pushing and jibes. I'm going to ignore that. . . . I have a mission . . . and nothing is going to deter me from that."
In short, it's the usual nonsense: quasi-religious triumphalism grafted onto entrepreneurial bluster and the cult of personality. Powell says, in essence, that the challenge appeals to him, and that he's got something to prove to those who say failure is more likely than success; the humanitarian, essentially collectivist aspect of the job seems to have eluded him.

One of Powell's most sterling qualities, to hear him tell it, is the ability to say "no" when necessary. The old-school public servant might've been overburdened by ethical responsibilities and common sense, but Powell casts off these shackles and pursues a higher calling:
In an interview last week, [Powell] contradicted an assertion by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) that he had committed the Bush administration to local leaders' $20 billion priority, strengthening the New Orleans levee system to withstand a Category 5 hurricane instead of the current Category 3....Powell, 64, a tall, low-key Texan who wears a cattleman's belt with a lone star under his suit, demurred. "The commitment is to build the levees back to a three . . . and then to study the five."
After San Francisco's Bay Bridge partially collapsed in the Loma Prieta earthquake, a CalTrans representative promised that they'd soon have it "just as strong as it was before the earthquake." Powell seems to favor a similar approach. Most people would see the recent flooding as empirical proof of the inadequacy of New Orleans' levees, but not Powell; he remains tough-minded and skeptical.

On the bright side, there's evidence that Powell's victims have maintained their swooning admiration for him, even as he sawed methodically at the limb to which they were clinging:
Powell's decisions in the boom-and-bust economy meant cutting jobs and foreclosing businesses, Marsh said. "He did all that, but still kept everyone's respect."
It's no surprise, given the man's thoughtful and deliberative nature:
He mentioned receiving two books, John M. Barry's "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America" and Michael J. Hogan's "The Marshall Plan: America, Britain and the Reconstruction of Western Europe, 1947-1952."
Who could fail to be impressed by the fact that the man in charge of cleaning up the worst disaster in American history has received a couple of books on flooding and reconstruction?

Of course, in George W. Bush's White House, reading a book is consistently portrayed as an act of unusual heroism and commitment; when people in the Administration really want to impress the out-of-touch eggheads in the liberal media, they mention that they're reading a book about the problem they're expected to solve. That noble sacrifice, when combined with the businessperson's vague commitment to "problem-solving" or "continuous improvement," comprises a proven recipe for success no matter how many times it fails, and how many people its failures kill or injure.

Personally, if I were going under the surgeon's knife, I wouldn't be reassured to see my doctor flipping frantically through a textbook on human anatomy.

Powell, of course, has other qualities inherent in those who labor in the world of high finance. Discretion, for instance:
Powell employs a banker's discretion in describing his relationship with the president and his father, George H.W. Bush, whose presidential library and school Powell helped launch. An overnight guest at Camp David with his wife, Twanna, Powell said the current president is "someone I admire. . . . His values. His heart. His will to win."
"A banker's discretion" is one way of putting it. "A wariness about revealing himself to be a wholly owned subsidiary of BushCo" would be another, less charitable description.

At the risk of sounding shrill, I'm going to suggest that anyone who claims to admire George W. Bush's "values" is a liar, a fool, or a cynic. It's not possible to argue, at this late date, that Bush has any recognizable values at all. The values he claims to have derived from Christianity, he's betrayed or downplayed repeatedly. And the myth of his personal integrity has been exploded by his countless lies, compromises, and broken promises. Bush's only consistent loyalty is to crony capitalism; he's a human windsock who changes direction with the flow of dirty money. His ability to placate this country's God-bullies has less to do with his sincerity, spirituality, or coherence than with the desperate need of that gentle flock to believe that it's on the verge of seizing power. The elevation of Bush to the status of "Bible-believing Christian" is a remarkably daft bit of wishful thinking even within the hypercredulous context of American fundamentalism.

Perhaps Powell will surprise us all, and do a good job. Stranger things have happened in American politics, I suppose. But there's one quote, in particular, that makes me fear the worst.
"My accountability is to the president," he added later.
This is an admirably terse way of saying, "I can do whatever I please, without being held responsible in any meaningful way." Powell's accountability is to the people of New Orleans, and the people of the United States. The fact that he doesn't understand this is worrisome, to say the least.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Sunday Sermon Blogging

Here are some excerpts from Lucretia Mott's sermon "Uses and Abuses of the Bible", which she delivered in Philadelphia on November 4, 1849:

The great error in Christendom is that the Bible is is called the word, that it is taken as a whole, as a volume of plenary inspiration and in this way it has proved one of the strongest pillars to uphold ecclesiastical power and hireling priesthood. What has been the power of this book? Is it not uniformly taken among all the professors to establish their peculiar creeds, their dogmas of faith and their forms of worship, be they ever so superstitious? Is not the Bible sought from beginning to end for its isolated passages wherewith to prove the most absurd dogmas that were ever palmed off upon a credulous people; dogmas doing violence to the divine gift of reason with which man is so beautifully endowed; doing violence to all his feelings, his sense of justice and mercy with which the Most High has seen fit to clothe him?....

We find the religionist, especially those whose greater interest it is to build up sect than to establish truth and righteousness in the earth...ready to flee to the Bible for authority for all their mysteries, their nonsensical dogmas, that have been imposed as articles of belief, as essential doctrines of Christianity. But also my friends has there not been an unworthy resort to this volume to prove the rightfulness of war and slavery, and of crushing women's powers, the assumption of authority over her, and indeed of all the evils under which the earth, humanity has groaned from age to age?....Because of the veneration of the Bible, we find, even down to the present time, the overruling providence of God is claimed as giving countenance to the most barbarous and horrid wars, that are even in this day, cursing and disgracing the nations of the earth.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Roboastrus gracilus. Her eyes, langorous as the narcissus, throw thorns of her eyelashes in the paths of the wise. Her face is as the sun when he took the moon's virginity.

Friday Hope Blogging

I enjoyed Engineer-Poet's recent post on peak energy versus peak oil. He sees considerable grounds for optimism, and has some interesting numbers to back it up:

The plug-in hybrid is coming; electric propulsion is already good enough to be offering 85% reductions in motor-fuel needs. But that's not the end. Radically improved batteries have been announced by several different companies, offering huge increases in power/weight (5 kW/kg), charge/discharge rate (100 C), and lifespan. The inevitable outcome of these advances is an all-electric car which can go several hundred miles at highway speeds and recharges in 5 minutes. Long before that, the same batteries will make hybrids more muscular than all but the most exotic sports cars. The same advanced 5 kWH battery which could drive a Prius+ for 20 miles or so could also deliver enough power (500 kW!) to leave Corvettes in the dust. If you're imagining a Miata with the power of a NASCAR racer, you've got the right idea....

Humans use about 400 quadrillion BTU (quads) of energy per year from all sources; the Sun delivers this much energy to Earth in about 41 minutes. Developments in the pipeline might increase the efficiency of PV cells from 15% to 60%, roughly 30 times as great as the most efficient higher plants. Such cells would produce an explosion in energy availability and thus energy use, without pollution.
In other news, attempts to make ethanol cheaply from non-food agricultural wastes (i.e., straw and stalks) continue to seem promising. I remain lukewarm about biodiesel, but the worst of my misgivings evaporate when the feedstock is waste cellulose. I can't imagine anything more ghastly than dedicating millions of acres to food crops, and turning them into ethanol at a net energy loss. Cellulosic ethanol, however, is another matter, and a couple of companies claim that they're prepared to move into large-scale production, using fungi to break cellulose down for processing into ethanol. SunOpta is one; Iogen is another.

Treehugger discusses the progress being made towards building two huge new solar arrays in the Mojave Desert, which will use Stirling engines to generate power. Their combined output would be an unprecedented 800 megawatts.

Treehugger also reports on Sun Microsystems' new, more efficient microprocessor:
[T]he new processor...draws an average of about 70 watts, anywhere from half to a third of more traditional processors, which are typically between 150 and 200 watts. Since less energy means less heat, this also cuts down on the amount of cooling needed, which serves to further save energy. Sun claims that removing the world's Web servers and replacing them with half the number of UltraSparc T1-based systems would have the same effect on carbon dioxide emissions as planting 1 million trees. It expects to ship systems based on the processor by the end of the year.
Elsewhere, I've mentioned the use of satellites to monitor and protect endangered species. Now, it seems that satellite surveillance is doing a good deal to protect the severely overfished Chilean sea bass from poachers.
[A] radar satellite surveillance system based on Envisat and Radarsat-1 imagery has cut the number of illegal fishing incursions in the vicinity of Kerguelen Island by nine-tenths. Run for the benefit of the French maritime authorities by the firm CLS (Collecte, Localisation Satellites), a subsidiary of the French space agency CNES, the system is up and running at a time when overfishing has left the 40-million-year-old Patagonian toothfish species on the verge of extinction.

The New Face of Ecoterrorism

We've all heard about the apocalyptic rampages of ecoterrorists, those wild-eyed zealots who set fire to SUVs, and who therefore pose a greater threat to American life and limb than every white-supremacist meth chemist from here to Coeur d'Alene.

Now, SUV drivers - soccer moms, NASCAR dads, and other unassailable exemplars of post-9/11 völkisch rectitude - are getting into the act. They're setting fire to their SUVs to save on gas money, and collect on insurance claims:

Experts say that the owner often reports the vehicle stolen, only to have it found within hours, looking like a pile of melted metal. A completely burned out car raises a red flag for Dave Roccaforte, a special agent with the auto task force. He’s seen suspicious vehicles all over the Peninsula, and in the South Bay. He says the only person who really stands to gain from a burned out vehicle is the owner, because the car would be much more valuable to a crook if it was not destroyed.
It strikes me that this modus operandi reflects the same emotional problems that Detroit's market researchers have identified as integral to the personality of the average SUV buyer.

For instance, an inability to assess risk accurately leads SUV drivers to overestimate the dangers they face from other drivers, and to ignore the safety hazards of SUVs. From there, underestimating the risk of getting prosecuted for insurance fraud is a short journey indeed. By the same token, insecurity and paranoia - an irrational obsession with crime and criminality, perhaps - leads SUV drivers to buy a vehicle they believe is intimidating; it also makes them imagine that a scenario in which thieves steal and torch SUVs is a plausible one (I wonder how many of these geniuses figured the police would simply blame the crime on ecoterrorist hippies and anarchists).

Let's see...what else? A poor grasp of costs versus benefits. An unwillingness to look beyond short-term gains, or to take responsibility for one's bad decisions. A lack of concern for one's community, especially if there's a buck to be made. These drivers didn't care about environmental or economic or safety issues when they bought the vehicles, and now that they want to get rid of them, they don't care if police and firefighters have to waste time and taxpayer dollars - and risk personal injury - to respond to the crimes of solipsistic white-collar arsonists.

Really, it's the perfect funeral ceremony for the SUV, that splendid symbol of the Free Market. It's one last sneer at personal responsibility, community, and common sense.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Dishonor and Disgrace

When the annals of human loathsomeness are written, the number and size of the volumes on Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA) will challenge the structural integrity of several large bookcases. It's not easy to stand out as as a beacon of corruption among the current crop of Republican House members, but Pombo manages it effortlessly. He inaugurated his career in the House with the shameless lie that the federal government had declared his land "critical habitat for the San Joaquin kit fox," thereby stripping it of its value. In fact, no land in California had ever received such a designation, and Pombo later admitted "I personally have not been directly affected by it [the Endangered Species Act] in, in my own, in my own property or the ranches that we have." For some odd reason, lying his ass off before a U.S. Senate subcommittee didn't harm Pombo's standing with area Republicans, who have re-elected him repeatedly.

As most readers probably know, Pombo's latest scheme is to "solve" the deficit problem - a good deal of which he and his cronies caused through an unprecedented orgy of spending and stealing - by selling off millions of acres of public land at cut-rate prices. Hark to his cold inexorable logic:

"In some states primarily owned by the federal government, it's important that more of that land become private property," he told the Post.
Important to whom? Grist offers some insight:
Pombo's mining-reform proposal would not require buyers to prove that mineral resources exist beneath the property they want to purchase, nor that they use the land for mining. "As written, purchasing the land need only facilitate 'sustainable economic development,'" Rahall said on the House floor earlier this month. "Since the term is not defined, 'sustainable economic development' could include condominium construction, ski resorts, gaming casinos, name it." And since the land would be privately owned and no longer under federal jurisdiction, it would be immune to environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act or public input on development plans.
The Sacramento Bee notes a particularly appalling aspect of this "grotesque notion [that] has slithered full-grown from the dim recesses of Rep. Richard Pombo's brain":
Pombo's bill would instruct the secretary of the interior to remove Theodore Roosevelt Island from the national park system and "make it available for immediate sale for purposes of commercial and residential development." Talk about adding insult to injury.
One result of Pombo's plan will be foreign ownership of large chunks of American soil. According to the Environmental Working Group:
Six of the top 10 claimholders in the U.S. are foreign-owned companies. These claimholders could privatize their land under Pombo's legislation. Almost a million acres of land in the three states currently owned by U.S. citizens could be transferred to foreign ownership under the Pombo scheme.
There are few senators who more richly deserve to be sent packing (preferably for relocation to a maximum security federal prison). Fortunately, displeasure with Pombo's corruption is increasing among moderate conservatives like Pete McCloskey, who formed the Revolt of the Elders Coalition specifically to educate the public about the malfeasance of Pombo and other "DeLay Republicans." McCloskey's current opinion piece in the Tracy Press is a fine piece of invective:
The Revolt of the Elders Coalition is an initiative organized by older Republicans who have served in Congress or in the executive branch and are deeply concerned about the present Republican leadership in the House. Our purpose is to educate the public about the DeLay Republicans, whom we believe have not only abandoned traditional Republican values, but also have dishonored and disgraced the party with their unethical conduct....

[A]s we began to look more carefully at the legislation and tactics employed by DeLay and his close allies in the House leadership, it became clear that not only had they set aside the covenants of the Contract with America that had brought the Republicans a House majority in 1994, but they also were deliberately abandoning traditional Republican principles dating back to Teddy Roosevelt and held by recent leaders as diverse as Barry Goldwater, Elliot Richardson and George H.W. Bush. These include fiscal responsibility with the goal of balanced budgets, progressive taxation, environmental protection, freedom of individual choices, limited powers of the federal government, paper-verification of voting results, judicial independence, prohibition of torture of prisoners and separation of church and state.
McCloskey was one of the co-authors of the Endangered Species Act, co-chaired the first Earth Day in 1970, and currently runs an organic orchard. His goal is to unseat Pombo in 2006; given the current schisms in the House, the public's increasing unwillingness to compromise on environmental protection, and the shifting demographics of Pombo's district, I suspect McCloskey and his cohorts stand a good chance of casting this dangerous, gibbering waste of skin into the outer darkness where he belongs, either by defeating him outright, or by splitting the GOP vote and leaving a clear field for a Democratic candidate.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Man On Dog

Over at WorldNetDaily, they're taking issue with Massachusett's Senate Bill 938, which eliminates or changes laws relating to a number of "archaic crimes." Being as they're sex-obsessed lunatics, WND naturally focuses on the bill's reduction of anti-bestiality penalties. Being as they're pathological liars, they misrepresent the extent of that reduction:

While the bill would keep bestiality technically illegal, it gives the option of less severe penalties. Previously, those convicted of "a sexual act on an animal" could receive up to 20 years in prison.
Oh, the animality! Here's the actual text of the bill:
Whoever commits a sexual act on an animal shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than 20 years or in a house of correction for not more than 2 ½ years, or by a fine of not more than $5,000, or by both such fine and imprisonment.
Perhaps there's some stark difference between "up to" and "not more than" that eludes me, but it certainly sounds as though you can still spend up to 20 years in jail for pitching woo at Ol' Yeller.

WND also reports that
Even the left-wing Weekly Dig can't believe that the Massachusetts Legislature is poised to go this far.
The left-wing Weekly Dig, eh? Here's what those wild-eyed pinko radicals have to say about the bill:
"More than two and a half years ago, the nation laughed as pro-family crusader Rick Santorum predicted the consequences of legalized gay marriage: If man-on-man marriage was sanctified, man-on-child and man-on-dog unions might not be far behind.

Those who jeered Santorum were silenced last Tuesday....The new measure would give activist judges the option of slapping perps with a mere two and a half years in plush local jails, or even letting zoophiliacs walk with a $5,000 fine. How badly has Massachusetts' moral compass suffered since dudes started honeymooning with dudes? Not one legislator, nor a single member of the God-fearing public, appeared before the judiciary committee to denounce the proposed changes."
"Pro-family crusader"? "Activist judges"? "Moral compass"? Where have I heard those terms before?

This America-hating leftist rag also includes a droll satirical story titled "Students Deprive Themselves of Education, Bring War Machine to Halt." Another piece begins:
Tired of having their electoral asses handed to them by home-schooled, anti-Darwinist God warriors, two of the Democratic Party’s most notorious pro-sodomy baby-killers, Bay State Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, have suddenly caught religion.
To be fair, some of this stuff is possibly intended to be ironic and humorous; my brief perusal of the Weekly Dig suggests that it's geared more towards iconoclastic, anti-PC 'tude than a blatantly partisan political agenda. And that's fine; more power to 'em. But it's clearly not "left-wing" in the sense WND would have you believe.

Bestiality is pretty rare by anyone's standards, and it doesn't tend to meet with approval from even the most flamboyantly perverse liberals (as Dan Savage says, "If you're going to have a closed mind about just three things, fucking animals, molesting children, and eating poop are good picks, don’t you think?").

America's most well-known practitioner of bestiality is, of course, the ultraconservative anti-abortion activist Neal Horsley, whose primary sexual motivations - like that of so many on the far right - seem to involve power and domination. I discussed Horsley a few months back, in terms that WND should probably read as cautionary:
Horsley eventually jilted his equine paramours, and became the great and godly man we all admire today. In Plymouth Colony, he would've suffered a very different fate; the world would never have learned that his perverted, self-centered mistreatment of animals could be transmuted by the alchemy of dominionism into perverted, self-centered mistreatment of women.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Revolting Developments

Are you prepared to have your comfortable little world blasted into its constituent atoms? If so, go forth and read Witold Rybczynski's review of Robert Bruegmann's new book Sprawl, and wrestle with paradigm-shifting pronouncements like this one:

[Bruegmann] finds that urban sprawl is not a recent phenomenon: It has been a feature of city life since the earliest times. The urban rich have always sought the pleasures of living in low-density residential neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities.
I'm not sure what Rybczynski is trying to explain or imply here; his remarks are pretty much useless, except as an example of the bargain-basement pseudo-epiphany to which cultural criticism is increasingly prone.

Modern sprawl - like many other modern problems - is an amalgam of the old and the new: Age-old patterns of behavior persist while population increases, and technology enables more intensive exploitation of limited resources. What's at issue in arguments over sprawl isn't the natural human desire for gardens or home ownership; that's a given. What's at issue are the costs and benefits of specific types of growth. Planning for the intelligent use of resources, and finding a sustainable balance between public and private good, requires exquisitely careful attention to current regional realities. The relevance of the ancient Roman villa rusticana to contemporary American land-use policy is obscure at best.

For his next trick, Rybczynski confounds a gogglin' world with the noncounterintuitive fact that sprawl currently exists in other countries.
Central urban densities are dropping because household sizes are smaller and affluent people occupy more space. Like Americans, Europeans have opted for decentralization. To a great extent, this dispersal is driven by a desire for home-ownership.
Fierce stuff, eh? One can easily imagine Rybczynski pouring cauldrons of molten lead onto the ragged anti-sprawl hordes howling at the gates of his Beaux Arts aerie. Unfortunately, though, in his eagerness to "challenge the assumptions that underpin most people's strongly held convictions about sprawl," Rybczynski fails to demonstrate that these assumptions are either common or significant enough to justify his efforts.

Again, the important question about American sprawl is the extent to which it's sustainable, given local infrastructure and resources. Sprawl in the desert West is the most obvious example of development that's based on blissfully short-sighted miscalculation. In those regions, there's a serious shortage of water, and no public transportation to speak of; a change in water or gasoline availability may well turn these developments into ghost towns. Sprawl in France or Japan is likely to be very different - in terms both of quality of life and long-term viability - from sprawl along I-10 in the Mojave Desert.

Now, I realize that in saying this, I'm just as guilty of belaboring the obvious as Rybczynski. But at least my invocation of the obvious includes some recognition of factors that make American sprawl unique, if not exemplary. Like a lot of commentators on sprawl, Rybczynski seems to view it as a cultural phenomenon to be assessed in terms of aesthetics. Since I view it as an issue of resource management, it's not surprising that I don't find this approach congenial.

Having tempted your palate with gnats, Rybczynski serves forth the camel:
Bruegmann shows that asking whether sprawl is "good" or "bad" is the wrong question. Sprawl is and always has been inherent to urbanization. It is driven less by the regulations of legislators, the actions of developers, and the theories of city planners, than by the decisions of millions of individuals — Adam Smith's "invisible hand."
This is a daft thing to say. Sprawl can perhaps be said to be inevitable - especially if it's irrationally considered to be synonymous with growth - but this doesn't mean that a specific type of sprawl is inevitable, or even possible, in a specific place. Local governments have a tremendous amount of power over how, and where, and whether sprawl occurs. There's no "free market" in land development, nor is there any compelling argument for one; water and waste issues alone make patterns of development a matter of public interest and public health.

The decision to build a planned community on an abandoned proving ground, in an area with little or no water, has nothing to do with the invisible hand, and a great deal to do with blind greed (to say nothing of the collusion and secrecy that are supposed to be anathema in a truly free market). Sure, a developer who's gotten some disastrous project rubberstamped by corrupt local politicians can usually corral a few hundred or thousand suckers into its buildings. But what of it? These are also boom times for child prostitition in Thailand and three-card monte dealers in Washington Square, neither of which is considered to be a respectable form of commerce.

Rybczynski certainly understands this on some level, since he ends his piece with a plea for better management of sprawl.
To find solutions — or, rather, better ways to manage sprawl, which is not the same thing — it helps to get the problem right.
This, of course, is a job that's supposed to be done by the very regulators, city planners, and developers whose power and responsibility he's just rhetorically downplayed in order to indulge in fuzzy-headed free-market mysticism.

It may be unfair to conclude from this seeming contradiction that Rybczynski's chasing his tail. Still, I fail to see how gratuitously blurring the distinctions between different types and degrees of sprawl, while ignoring the role of developers and lawmakers in ramming ill-advised developments down the public's throat, will help us to improve our thinking about land use.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Hexabranchus sanguineus. Don't look at it all at'll have to last you for a while. I'm taking a much-needed jaunt up to the glorious Pacific Northwest, and am unlikely to post anything else 'til Monday.

Have a nice weekend, friends!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Outlook Not So Good

Bear with me, I beg of you, for this week's final post on chemical weapons. Rest assured that it hurts me more than it does you.

State governments are becoming interested in the chemical weapons that the military dumped off America's coasts.

Officials in Hawai'i and Washington, D.C., are demanding information from the Department of Defense on more than 8,000 tons of chemical weapons that were dumped off O'ahu at the end of World War II and may still be there.

The weapons and bulk chemical containers include the lethal toxins hydrogen cyanide and cyanogen chloride and the blistering agents mustard and lewisite....An Army spokesman last week said there is no danger of the toxic chemicals washing up on O'ahu beaches, but he was unable to say how the Army came to that conclusion.
Most likely, the Army won't explain how it reached this conclusion because it's classified information. Perhaps it's only a coincidence, but my sources inform me that after decades of top-secret research into the strange properties of icosahedral flotation devices, DARPA recently perfected a new-generation threat assessment calculator. Make of it what you will.

Senator John Warner (R-VA) has joined other members of Congress in filing a formal request for information on offshore dumping of chemical weapons. The DoD's provisional response is here.

Meanwhile, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has staggered forth from the reeking primordial ooze of Black Pond, his ghastly rictus lit by the eerie glow of the ignis fatuus, or corpse candle, and asked Congress to investigate whether 1,825 corroding cylinders made of depleted uranium and filled with phosgene might pose a threat to worker health at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. ("Signs point to yes!")

Over at the Rocky Flats nuclear site in Colorado, a great many workers are already sick or dead. Fortunately, help is on the way:
Recognizing that many of the workers have terminal illnesses, the Labor Department has increased its staff in its regional offices in hopes of expediting the claims process....
That's downright neighborly of them. The linked article says that there were 35,000 such claims from Rocky Flats alone. A dirty bomb that affected that many people would thrill any terrorist.

What all this amounts to, in the end, is a slow-motion attack on the United States with WMD. We've sickened and killed our citizens, damaged our economy, poisoned our food and water, destroyed or contaminated natural resources that had both financial and spiritual value, and saddled future generations with a host of burdensome problems. This war of attrition isn't as glamorous or exciting as a single, high-casualty terrorist attack, of course. Still, I suspect America's foreign enemies will find it very difficult to do as much cumulative damage to this country as its self-styled defenders have done, and are doing.

UPDATE: Thanks to a tip from Ahianne, who has apparently whiled away many happy hours at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, I went forth and researched the phosgene/depleted uranium story a bit more. The term "depleted uranium cylinders" was used in the linked article, but as Ahianne noted, it's misleading. These are actually steel cylinders that formerly held phosgene, and now hold uranium hexafluoride. This article writes the lead sentence properly:
Cylinders storing depleted uranium at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant may be corroding because of toxic gas mistakenly left in them....
And there you have it. However many of our dreams may have gone unfulfilled today, at least a few of us will be able to say that we learned something new about gaseous diffusion plants.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Much as I'd like to get away from the topic of biological and chemical weapons, the good news keeps pouring in.

An Italian documentary claims to detail the United States' alleged use of white phosphorus as an offensive weapon against civilians in Iraq. According to the linked article, US officials claim that the use of phosphorus shells over Fallujah was intended strictly for "illumination" of enemy positions.

That's an interesting claim, because as far as I know, the main non-offensive use of white phosphorus is as a smokescreening agent. I've never heard of WP being used in illuminating shells; those usually comprise magnesium and chlorate mixtures. It seems to me that WP would be a poor, and extremely hazardous, substitute.

Even if they'd work as illuminating ammunition, detonating white phosphorus shells over a city for that purpose would be criminally negligent, at best. And the fact that we've refused to sign the Geneva Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons remains both suggestive and troubling.

Another article on this growing scandal makes an interesting argument:

[T]his amounts to the illegal use of chemical arms, though the bombs are considered incendiary devices.
The language of warfare is endlessly fascinating. White phosphorus is, technically speaking, a chemical weapon. But technically speaking, so are bombs. Whether the chemicals that constitute a given weapon kill or maim by blowing human beings into pieces, burning them to the bone, or poisoning them receives, I think, too much attention from armchair ethicists. Given a choice between being severely burned by white phosphorus, mustard gas, or red-hot shrapnel, I'd be hard-pressed to make up my mind.

Sometimes I wonder if a certain amount of the horror that ordinary weapons should inspire has been deflected onto chemical weapons and their ilk, as though the distinction between blowing people up and poisoning them constituted a clear and decisive line between civilization and barbarism. Chemical weapons, properly so called, are inherently of limited use on the battlefield; their real utility, perhaps, lies in their ability to make other forms of mass murder seem relatively acceptable.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Who We Are, What We Do

On this fine sparkling morning, I believe I'll continue to examine the blurry line between terrorism and policy.

For decades, the United States used the land running along the Panama Canal as a firing range.

It gave control of the canal to Panama at the end of 1999, but handover treaties only obliged it to clear up unexploded munitions as far as was "practicable."

Around 30,000 acres were cleaned but 8,000 acres are still scattered with live mortars, grenades, bombs, rockets and Agent Orange residue. Outside the canal zone, seven mustard gas bombs weighing between 500 pounds and 1,000 pounds were abandoned on Panama's uninhabited Pacific island of San Jose....

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared the issue closed when he visited Panama last year, and US officials say Panama simply needs to keep people away from the former ranges.
Past and future fatalities, then, are not the fault of the United States for turning another country's land into a minefield, and refusing to clean up the mess it made. Instead, the Panamanians are to blame, because they've failed thusfar to be sufficiently watchful shepherds of their flock.

John Lindsay-Poland makes the essential point:
"When the U.S. has gone to war over weapons of mass destruction being in other country's hands, to abandon WMD in a country they used as a military training ground for nearly a century is irresponsible and hypocritical," he told Reuters.
If you're interested, you can find a horrifying account of US weapon testing in Panama here.

UPDATE: Regarding unexploded ordnance, Bush tells Panamanian President Martin Torrijos "Go fuck yourself."

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Deliberate Contamination

The news about excreted and discarded pharmaceuticals continues to be alarming:

Water samples taken from rivers and sewer drains in Maine confirmed that at least some drug-related compounds - including two associated with hormone therapies - can be measured here....

Fish downstream of Denver's sewage treatment plant were found to have both male and female sex organs, a mutation scientists linked to the presence of estrogen drugs spilling out of the sewer system. Male fish in the Potomac River in Maryland were recently found carrying eggs, and similar hormonal changes have been reported in fish around the world.
Maine is interested in starting a take-back program for pharmaceuticals, as is the EPA. But in George W. Bush's America, there's no money for such fripperies:
The Legislature passed a first-in-the-nation law last year to enable mail-in collection programs that would gather unused medications for disposal in secure incinerators. The law did not provide any financing to begin the collections, however, and there is still no statewide program or solution. A study panel has recommended that the state find alternative sources of money to implement the law.

The EPA, which continues to research the issue, also is supporting the idea of collections but lacks the funding to create programs.
As valuable as a take-back program would be, it's even more important to remove endocrine disruptors from sewage plant effluent. Not surprisingly, Bush's FY 2005 budget slashed funding for modernized water filtration, and research into endocrine disruptors:
The President's budget has its largest cut in water quality infrastructure funding for reducing sources of pollution. This category includes a broad range of activities, including sewage plants, water purification facilities, and targeted pollution-prevention investments....The largest single reduction is in the Clean Water Act State Revolving Fund (CWASRF), which loans money to states to pay for sewage treatment plants....Specific program targets include research into the effects of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors (down almost $5 million) "pesticides and toxics," (down $7.7 million from the 2004 budget) and "human health and ecosystems," (down $13 million from the 2004 budget).
On the bright side, the EPA did manage to fund a website that warns us about the shocking perils of "water terrorism":
[T]here continues to be concern that water may represent a potential target for terrorist activity and that deliberate contamination of water is a potential public health threat.
What sort of fanatical, dead-hearted fiends would deliberately contaminate America's water? I'll let this final example stand for many:
Weston Wilson, an engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency, has applied for federal whistleblower protection status after opposing his agency's study of the effects of hydraulic fracturing on water quality. Used mostly in the West in coalbed methane drilling, hydraulic fracturing involves injecting a mixture of water, sand and a variety of chemicals deep underground at extremely high pressures to free up oil and natural gas reserves. Halliburton invented the technique, which earns the company $1.5 billion each year -- roughly one-fifth of its energy-related revenue.

In addition to generating profits, though, hydraulic fracturing contaminates drinking water supplies. When local residents began to complain about the pollution, Halliburton and other drilling companies grew concerned that environmental regulations would halt hydraulic fracturing. But in 2001, Halliburton's former chief and the current Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney, issued a national energy report that cited the benefits of hydraulic fracturing while omitting health concerns raised by the EPA. The Bush administration subsequently secured a special provision in the energy bill that would exempt hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
If Al-Qaeda does it, it's terrorism. If BushCo does it, it's wise use.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Friday Nudibranch Blogging

This is Eubranchus leopoldoi. A square proportion of body is requisite in these beasts, as well as a tolerable lightness of foot. They are of pleasant disposition and will leap and bite without pinching. Others are taught to carry in their mouths that which is cast unto them.

Friday Hope Blogging

Tires are one of the most intractable forms of waste. You can't put them in landfills, for a number of reasons. And stockpiling them invites a host of woes, from toxic, long-burning fires to the proliferation of disease-ridden mosquitoes and rodents for whom a tire is a luxurious home. Despite these problems, there are about 2.5 billion tires currently stockpiled around the country, and more coming every day.

Treehugger describes a possible solution. An Australian firm called Molectra claims that it can recover and recycle most of the rubber from tires, and manufacture oil into the bargain:

On the oil side they suggest about 3.9 litres can be extracted. And, yes, before you ask, they can separate the metal rim bead, plus the sandwiched metal and textile belts, yielding another 2.4 kg of recovered materials. They claim there is no waste or pollution from the process. Considering there are an estimated 1.2 billion waste tyres entering the world market each year (many of which get incinerated), Molectra might just have discovered the alchemists holy grail of turning common materials into gold.
Speaking of things that sound too good to be true, Treehugger also describes a California-based firm called Pyron Solar, which says that it can produce electricity as cheaply as conventional power plants; if true, this would mean they'd achieved a staggering 40-percent decrease in the production cost of solar power.
The system, developed with Boeing-Spectrolab, is very compact, and uses short-focal-length lenses to concentrate direct sunlight to photovoltaic cells. The company says these cells produce 800 times more electricity than conventional non-concentrating cells of the same size. Their first prototype, which is 23 feet in diameter and 16 inches high, produces an astonishing 6.5 KW of electricity, enough to power six homes.
It's always enlightening to compare the efforts of companies like these to those of dead-enders like the Pacific Legal Foundation, whose flailings I detailed in my previous post.

Meanwhile, We Make Money Not Art discusses likely directions for airplane redesign:
The "flying wings" airliners will be based on designs produced by Sir Frederick Handley Page in 1961. His design was considered too expensive and risky in 1961. But his ideas have now been resurrected by companies such as Boeing and Airbus.

The fuselage would be turned into one wing to create less drag and engines would sit on top, with the wing shielding the noise from the ground. Passengers would sit in rows of up to 40 seats across. Wings would consume only a third of the fuel used by existing aircraft. They will be constructed of plastic, rather than aluminium, to reduce their weight. The outer surface would be covered in millions of tiny holes to reduce drag by sucking in air as it flows over the wing.

The impact on the world’s climate would be reduced even further by changes in the way that airlines operate. All airliners will alter their cruising altitude to avoid the conditions that form condensation trails. They could also reduce the amount of fuel they burn by flying in formation, as jet fighters do.
Last, but certainly not least, Triple Pundit has alerted me to a wonderful new site called Kiva, which allows you to make peer-to-peer microloans to start-up businesses in developing countries:
By choosing a business on our website and then lending money online to that enterprise, you can "sponsor a business" and help the world's working poor make great strides towards economic independence. Throughout the course of the loan (usually 6-12 months), you can receive monthly email updates that let you know about the progress being made by the small business you've sponsored. These updates include reports on loan repayment progress, photos of new capital equipment, narratives on business growth and standard of living improvements, and more. As loans are repaid, you will get your original loan money back.
This is a really great idea. I discussed microfinancing in an earlier installment of FHB; the loan requests are often as little as 25 or 50 dollars...chickenfeed to most of us, but months of hard work and self-denial for many people around the world.

Obviously, there's always a chance that you won't get your money back. But personally, I'm more than willing to take the gamble.

Legal Eagles

American ultraconservatism has an attractive new poster child:

A Minnesota resident sued the federal government Tuesday concerning the bald eagles' continued listing as an endangered species, arguing that a bird's nest on his property made it impossible to build on the land.

Edmund Contoski, who owns lakefront property in Morrison County, Minn., teamed up with the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation of Sacramento, Calif., to file the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.
Without addressing the legal merits of this case, I have to say that it suggests a poor grasp of symbolic politics, which is a discipline at which the Right is supposed to excel.

The Pacific Legal Foundation is well known to students of rabid anti-environmentalism (to the best of my knowledge, it was the first anti-environmental law firm).

Contoski has an interesting history too. Though portrayed in the article above as an ordinary citizen, Contoski is a highly visible anti-environmental activist in his own right. Consider, for instance, his book Makers and Takers:
Makers and Takers shows how the free market works--and why government intervention doesn't. It examines various forms of economic intervention (taxation, regulation, monetary policy) and their effects on consumer products and services, the health and lives of Americans, and the nation's economic well-being.

The book also explores a broad range of environmental issues. Scientific subjects such as pollution, acid rain, and global warming are explained in clear, nontechnical language--including some surprising facts that discredit current government policies.
In addition, Contoski claims to have been "director of planning for an internationally renowned environmental consulting firm." Apparently, his innate modesty prevents him from telling us which one.

The argument the PLF makes on Contoski's behalf is a fascinating one:
The bald eagle's recovery is widely credited to the banning of DDT in 1972. By 1995, the bald eagle's numbers had increased so significantly that the government downlisted the species from "endangered" to "threatened."
This is interesting mainly because when the PLF was formed in 1973, one of its goals was to support the continued, virtually unregulated use of DDT. To acknowledge all these decades later, albeit passively and ambivalently, that this ban is generally considered to have improved the situation of the bald eagle, is more than ordinarily cynical.

You probably won't be surprised to learn that the PLF has also consistently litigated against the Endangered Species Act itself. Thus, it seems to me that they're essentially using the success of two policies they oppose as an argument against continued protection for the bald eagle. Between this somewhat self-defeating argument, and the symbolic status of the bald eagle, it's hard to see how this lawsuit could result in anything more rewarding than a Pyrrhic victory.

I offer this charming story as a preamble to Stephanie Hendricks' terrific article on the confluence of the "Wise Use" movement with Dominion Theology. (The article is excerpted from her new book Divine Destruction, which I recommend highly.)

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Satanic Manual of Style

WorldNetDaily reports that Europe's few surviving Christians are facing a new and dreadful form of persecution:

A new grammar rule devised by the European Union in Brussels stipulates the word "Christ" shall be spelled with a lowercase "c"....The EU changes become mandatory next August. There are no penalties set out for those who insist on continuing to spell Christ with a capital "C."
This is typical criminal-coddling from the EU's liberal/socialist cabal; they've always been against capital punishment.

What's behind this fearsome new wave of anti-Christian bigotry? The answer is simple enough:
Many Europeans have long discarded belief in God and in fact believe more deeply in ghosts than in a deity....26 percent believe in UFOs, 19 percent in reincarnation and 4 percent in the Loch Ness Monster, Ananova reported.
For shame! Still, I can't help noticing that even in the God-fearin' virtual pages of WorldNetDaily, UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster each get three capital letters, while Christ and God get only one.

The obvious solution is to demand a new orthography specifying that these Holy Names must invariably be printed in all caps. I also think that anti-religious organizations and people should have their capital letters taken away. And if the aclu has a problem with that, too bad!

As you may have guessed, the WND story is a pack of lies concocted for the de-edification of the pathologically gullible. According to this article from the Netherlands:
"Linde van den Bosch veegde enkele interpretaties in de media als onjuist van tafel. "Het is niet zo dat Christus voortaan met een kleine letter wordt geschreven als de "heilige persoon" wordt bedoeld."
Roughly translated, this says "Linde van den Bosch swept some media interpretations off the table. "It's not true that Christ must be spelled with a lowercase letter when it refers to the "holy person."

At the risk of shattering your faith in the essential decency of the blogosphere, I'm obliged to report that the right-wing blogs don't seem to be going out of their way to fact-check this story. It's almost as though elaborate outward displays of religiosity take on a disproportionate importance among people who lack inner moral conviction.

While I'm on this subject, I should mention that there are no capital letters in Biblical Hebrew, nor in Biblical Greek. In fact, unless I'm mistaken, Greek didn't acquire a second case 'til about seven centuries after Christ. Perhaps we should burn Codex B as blasphemous.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

America Attacked With Nerve Agents!

It seems like only yesterday I was complaining about the irresponsible disposal of hydrolyzed VX nerve agent.

After reading this story, though, dumping 4 million gallons of VX hydrolysate in the Delaware River begins to sound unimpeachably safe and sane:

The Army now admits that it secretly dumped 64 million pounds of nerve and mustard agents into the sea, along with 400,000 chemical-filled bombs, land mines and rockets and more than 500 tons of radioactive waste - either tossed overboard or packed into the holds of scuttled vessels.

A Daily Press investigation also found:

These weapons of mass destruction virtually ring the country, concealed off at least 11 states - six on the East Coast, two on the Gulf Coast, California, Hawaii and Alaska. Few, if any, state officials have been informed of their existence.

The chemical agents could pose a hazard for generations. The Army has examined only a few of its 26 dump zones and none in the past 30 years.
George W. Bush claimed that Saddam Hussein's apocryphal stockpile of nerve agents comprised roughly 500 tons. By contrast, our own military dumped 32,000 tons of the same agents into our coastal waters, where they continue to do untold economic and environmental damage (and, surprisingly often, injure unlucky fishermen).
"We do not claim to know where they all are," said William Brankowitz, a deputy project manager in the Army Chemical Materials Agency and a leading authority on the Army's chemical weapons dumping. "We don't want to be cavalier at all and say this stuff was exposed to water and is OK. It can last for a very, very long time."

A drop of nerve agent can kill within a minute. When released in the ocean, it lasts up to six weeks, killing every organism it touches before breaking down into its nonlethal chemical components.

Mustard gas can be fatal. When exposed to seawater, it forms a concentrated, encrusted gel that lasts for at least five years, rolling around on the ocean floor, killing or contaminating sea life.
Fascinating, eh? Perhaps it'll turn out that overfishing isn't the sole cause of the decline in fish populations over the last few decades.

This is the first in a series of articles the Daily Press will be writing on this subject. Tell your friends!