The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, January 30, 2009

Hothouse Flowers

”If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” Harry Truman once famously advised about Washington politics. It appears President Obama likes heat and sees it not as a punishment for non-compliance but the perfect climate for growing things.

Obama apparently has cranked up the thermostat in the Oval Office.

“You could grow orchids in there,” moans senior adviser David Axelrod. “He’s from Hawaii. He likes it warm.”

This past week, Obama tried growing orchids of the GOP variety, inviting numerous Republican Congressional leaders to the White House in an attempt to sell them on his economic stimulus package. Alas, his attempts to graft them onto his philosophical blossom died on the vine. While the stimulus legislation easily passed, House Republicans voted unanimously against it.

Many were aghast at the sheer size of the package. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor called it “a spending bill beyond anyone’s imagination.” Yet their objections were more complex than just this.

As David Brooks summed up in today’s New York Times, Democrats merged stimulus measures with their domestic agenda. The result is a “sprawling, undisciplined smorgasbord,” which “by trying to do everything all at once . . . does nothing well.”

Even if Republicans do not hate the bill as much as their rhetoric suggests, there is political calculation at work here. Republicans could not stop the bill in the House nor amend it much there. However, taking a strong stand against it gives their Senate counterparts maximum leverage for compromise when debating the bill in conference.

Philip Klein, writing in the American Spectator, argues it makes no sense for Republicans to do anything other than vote against the Democratic bill. If voters view this stimulus as a failure by 2010, Republican opposition to it now will gain them credibility as champions against wasteful spending and big government intervention. Conversely, if the economy improves, Obama will rake in most of the credit, regardless whether Republicans opposed or supported him.

Orchids are a fit analogy for Republicans at this moment. Often regarded as a fragile flower, orchids are either epiphytes or lithophytes, clinging to larger structures in a non-parasitical relationship, whereby they derive mechanical support but no nutrients.

Republicans, until recent years, controlled both the White House and Congress. Now they must define themselves by their opposition to the Democratic majority. This vote reflects their first determination to dig into the tree of Obama. Yet any real political sustenance for them will come not from this opposition but from ideas they present as alternatives to Democratic rule.

In this sense, their resistance to Obama’s stimulus package is flawed, particularly since they claim to be motivated by budgetary constraints and fighting deficits. Senator John McCain of Arizona has said he cannot support the bill in its current form and hopes to negotiate on some of its massive spending. Obama has already removed a few token examples of the package’s most outrageous outlays and seems expectant and willing to compromise further.

Yet, when offering their own ideas, Republicans generally are lean on suggesting specific spending cuts and heavy on promoting wider and deeper tax cuts.

Appearing on ABC’s This Week last Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky spoke approvingly of tax cuts as the Republican preferred approach. House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio echoed that sentiment in a different interview, saying, “Our plans offers fast-action tax relief, not slow moving, wasteful government spending.”

When Republicans finally released their own alternative plan for consideration, it focused exclusively on expanding tax cuts and banning any future tax increases.

It called for reducing the two lowest tax rates from fifteen percent and ten percent to ten percent and five percent respectively. This would include individuals and families making as much as $131,000 per year. Republicans suggested unemployment benefits be tax-free. They want to give small businesses a tax credit up to twenty percent of their incomes. Anyone who could place a five percent down payment on a home would receive a $7,500 tax credit.

Some of these are good ideas and I hope they end up in the final stimulus legislation. However, Republicans seem to miss the point that reduced inlays balloon deficits every bit as fast as increased outlays. In truth, its reliance on tax cuts as an economic panacea without corresponding spending cuts is very much the GOP version of “pork.”

Martin Feldstein, a conservative economist and noted deficit hawk, contends in yesterday’s Washington Post that the majority of government tax cuts end up saved or used to pay down debt, with only fifteen percent of their payout leading to additional spending. Feldstein instead proposes one-time tax credits to households that purchase cars or other major consumer durables.

Republicans can learn a few valuable political lessons from orchids. Despite their delicate nature, highly specialized pollination systems, and often non-fertile surroundings, orchids survive by remaining receptive for very long periods.

Democrats need to deal with their minority status in Congress for at least another two years and with Obama for at least another four years. The current Democratic juggernaut in Washington demands an aggressive opposition to prevent excesses but it must be helpful rather than merely confrontational and principled in its rivalry rather than merely partisan.

The other lesson orchids hold for Republican is that recent botanical research has revealed them a far older species than anyone previously suspected. Orchids first arose during the late Cretaceous Period and co-existed with dinosaurs. This makes them a kind of “living fossil.”

Republicans could suffer a similar fate if they follow the same timidity and uninspired thinking that kept Democrats out of the White House longer than necessary. To wit, they must not rely on Democratic unpopularity to make them seem likeable or Democratic weakness to make them seem strong.

Brad Woodhouse, president of the pro-Democratic group Americans United for Change, recently termed Republican opposition to the stimulus bill “political suicide.” This is clearly hyperbole and perhaps blatantly wrong. However, Democratic ridicule of Republican tax cuts as more of the same failed policies hits closer to home.

There are hundreds of types of orchids in the wild but most species are cultivated. Obama is turning up the thermostat on House and Senate Republicans. While the resulting heat will focus on him, these hothouse flowers must learn to deal with and thrive in rising temperatures.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Move to Strike Bowel Movement

Weusi McGowan, a thirty-seven year old man from San Diego, takes shit from nobody when it comes to ensuring his legal rights but this does not stop him from dishing it out.

In a story first reported by San Diego’s and subsequently picked up by the Associated Press, McGowan was on trial for kidnapping, robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, and other counts. He grew disenchanted with the defense attorney and judge assigned to his case and took forceful action to flush them.

McGowan originally became upset when he claimed one of the jurors saw him in shackles as he entered the courtroom and feared this would prejudice the jury against him. Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Fraser agreed with his concerns and dismissed all jurors who saw the shackles. McGowan believed the incident should result in a mistrial.

Another full week into the trial, McGowan petitioned the court again, this time asking to remove Deputy Alternate Public Defender Jeffrey Martin because he wanted to represent himself. Judge Fraser denied his request, saying it was "untimely."

So, this Monday, McGowan smuggled a bag of feces (presumably his own) into court and spread it on Martin’s hair and face. He then flung the excrement toward the jury box, hitting the briefcase of one juror but missing the actual jurors. Prosecutor Christopher Lawson told reporters that nobody in the courtroom was aware what McGowan was doing prior to that point (with the obvious exception of Martin).

For all its shocking bizarreness, McGowan’s manure maneuver worked where his verbal plea had failed. Judge Fraser called a lunch recess after the incident. When the jury returned, Fraser told them he was declaring a mistrial and McGowan would need to find himself a new attorney – which is exactly what the defendant wanted.

Granted, Fraser increased McGowan’s bail from $250,000 to $1 million, declaring him a danger to the community. McGowan may also face assault charges for attacking his attorney and jury.

Lawson further revealed that McGowan was known to wipe human feces on himself in the past. However, an examination by doctors found him mentally competent to stand trial.

McGowan’s original conviction came in October 2007. He got into a fight with another man, allegedly over drugs and money. McGowan tied up the other man, ransacked his apartment, and stole his 1994 Ford Taurus, after hitting him over the head with a sock he had previously filled with . . . rocks. His victim freed himself and jumped out of a second-story window in an attempt to stop the auto theft, injuring himself in the process.

The questions and observations raised by this case are numerous and deeply meditative.

First, exactly what would a defendant have to smear all over themselves to raise doubts in the minds of the San Diego justice system regarding their competence to stand trial?

Second, how clueless were the authorities at whatever jail or prison housing McGowan that they did not notice him taking a bag of feces to his trial that morning?

Third, how incredibly clueless were the authorities in the courtroom if McGowan was able to rub excrement over one human being and then throw it at another before anybody began to suspect that perhaps he was up to something?

Fourth, what was in the judge’s mind when he ordered everybody to go to lunch immediately after this incident occurred?

Fifth, while I grant I am unsure what else Judge Fraser could do in the matter, it seems the mistrial declared for McGowan sets a dangerous precedent whereby a defendant whose case is going extremely poorly might be highly encouraged to gain themselves a "do-over" by openly flouting the court’s authority.

Sixth, McGowan is not a good person to be anywhere near when he is upset about something.

Seventh, if McGowan ever approaches you and tells you he "has something for you," I urge you to observe caution. My warning only increases should he add that he "made it himself."

Eight, what is it exactly with McGowan and sacks filled with stuff?

Ninth, many defendants rely on the Constitution to ensure they get a fair trail but McGowan may be the first to rely upon his morning constitutional to do so, as the website wittily observes.

Tenth, if McGowan is re-tried and found not guilty, should this little stunt be regarded as the potty break that got him off? Was McGowan wearing a shit-eating gin when he did the deed? Would eating feces constitute questionable competency in San Diego?

Finally, if we conclude nothing else from all this, it appears that vengeance, like justice, is a dish best served pre-digested.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Boring Into "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

A bore is a man who, when you ask him how he is, tells you.
– Bert Leston Taylor, 1922

It is entirely possible Taylor lifted the above witticism from Voltaire’s 1738 work Sept Discours en Vers sur l'Homme, which contains the line, “The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” As applied to the contemporary military policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the term "bore" has little to do with actually being boring. Everybody seems preternaturally interested in the necessity of U.S. soldiers divulging their sexuality.

Instead, bore is more likely to invoke the image of a slow and stupid person in this context. Why would a gay soldier reveal their sexual preference when self-identification is the only means by which the military may prosecute and remove them from service?

The idea of a bore as someone or something repetitive, wearisome, or tiresome is also appropriate here. No matter which side of the issue you stand, everybody is sick of introspection over whether the government has the right to limit military service to heterosexuals.

Yet revisit it again we all will because President Obama has strongly indicated he seeks to lift all bans on gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces.

Knowing exactly how fast and how far the new Administration will act is difficult to determine, since Obama was admittedly androgynous in his commitment to the concept during the campaign, depending on to whom he was speaking.

When addressing the Human Rights Campaign, he radiated frank assuredness. “America is ready to get rid of [this] policy. All that is required is leadership.” Conversely, when interviewed by the Military Times, he was more reticent. “I want to make sure that we are doing it in a thoughtful and principled way . . . This is not something that I'm looking to shove down the military's throats.”

These two views are not necessarily contradictory. Former President Bill Clinton attempted to do the same thing in the first one hundred days of his Presidency and received his first major embarrassment/defeat from Congress in the process.

The resulting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislation contained little that was groundbreaking, mostly serving to codify formally past standard practices. Its principal significance lay in taking away what had formerly been the sole decision of the Commander-In-Chief. Obama must convince a majority of Congress to repeal the ban, which severely cuts into his ability to play “the decider” in this matter, even assuming he desires such a role.

A disconnect between military personnel and civilians on this subject compounds the problem’s complexity. Seventy-nine percent of Americans favored gays serving openly in a May 2007 CNN poll. This represents a clear majority and is up significantly from the forty-four percent who felt that way back in 1993.

However, a 2006 poll by the Military Times found only thirty percent of active military personnel favored gays serving openly and a fifty-nine percent majority strongly opposed the idea.

Language adopted by Congress in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law reflects military reasoning for opposing gays.

“The primary purpose of the armed forces is to prepare for and to prevail in combat should the need arise . . . Success in combat requires military units that are characterized by high morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion. One of the most critical elements in combat capability is unit cohesion, that is, the bonds of trust among individual service members that make the combat effectiveness of a military unit greater than the sum of the combat effectiveness of the individual unit members. Military life is fundamentally different from civilian life.”

Doubtless, some heterosexual soldiers also cite ethical reasons rather than or in addition to the military arguments. No less than former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Peter Pace, told the Chicago Tribune in a March 2007 interview, “I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts.”

Of course, there are ethical arguments for inclusion. At the time he first announced his intention to life the ban on gay soldiers, former President Clinton declared, “The issue is whether men and women who can and have served with real distinction should be excluded from military service solely on the basis of their status. And I believe they should not.”

President Obama frames this logic in even more pragmatic terms. “At a time when we are short-handed, everybody who is willing to lay down their lives on behalf of the United States and can do so effectively . . . should have the opportunity to do so.”

Although the number of active military personnel discharged because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” since its inception hovers at over twelve thousand, numbers have dropped starkly since September 11, suggesting need has indeed outweighed concerns.

There is also work by numerous researchers, most notably Doctor Gregory Herek, Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Davis and co-author of the 1996 book Out In Force – Sexual Orientation and the Military, that suggest fears over loss of military unit cohesion due to openly serving homosexuals is overstated.

Herek divides unit cohesion into two subcategories. Social cohesion is the extent to which group members like and feel emotionally comfortable with each other. Task cohesion is the degree to which group members share common goal(s) and feel motivated to coordinate their efforts as a team to achieve them. Herek argues it is the latter cohesion, which can exist without strong social cohesion, that is most contributory to unit effectiveness.

While civilian authority over the military is the law in this country, an understandably strong bias exists within the military that civilians do not appreciate its different lifestyle and, thus, decisions about the military should remain the sole province of the military.

In one sense, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is less about protecting the military as a whole from the actual screw-ups or problems created by its homosexual minority and more about protecting that minority from the fears and general discomfort of the military’s heterosexual majority. If the presence of openly gay soldiers compromises unit effectiveness, then, right or wrong, the safety of all soldiers in that unit is compromised – including and perhaps more especially that of its gay soldiers.

Yet if maximizing combat effectiveness is the military’s primary purpose, why should the military permit the discomfort of individual soldiers, even if they represent the majority, to compromise unit effectiveness any more than the sexuality of other individual soldiers? Is not surrender of personal preferences to the common good in service of country the hallmark of any good soldier?

It is understood that those who oppose gays serving in the military desire to identify and remove all homosexual soldieries currently serving and attempting to serve. However, total removal is unlikely since no way exists to identify except through self-identification by verbal declaration or observation of open actions.

On this basis, it is impossible even to ascertain objectively whether the current “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy correctly identifies and removes the vast majority of homosexuals from the ranks or leaves the vast majority in place, although a healthy skepticism suggests the latter.

If detecting the presence of homosexuals is paramount to those worried over unit cohesion and effectiveness, it seems to me this would be maximized by allowing gay soldiers to declare their sexuality without retribution than the current state of affairs, in which every soldier in every unit is conceivably suspect. It further seems to me the stress of serving with openly gay solders by some heterosexuals would be little worse than the stress that exists for hetero- and homosexuals under the current system, in attempting to ferret out and avoid detection respectively.

The only obvious downside to repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for those opposed to gays in the military is that identified homosexuals could not be removed for this reason alone. Yet this ignores the fact that gays are now and probably always have been in the U.S. military since its inception. If serving with gays is unavoidable, operating under conditions of superior intelligence rather than hypocritical pretense best serves heterosexual concerns in the long run.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice can still protect the troops. While it could no longer prosecute a soldier simply for being gay, it might do so if they express their sexuality in an excessive or improper way that would be directly harmful to unit effectiveness. This would be analogous to allowing a soldier to drink alcoholic beverages but not while on duty.

The fatal flaw of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is that it relies on self-identification by gays, to their own detriment, in order to achieve the goals of their detractors. To paraphrase the opening quote by Taylor, only an exceptionally stupid bore would tell who they are, when asked under such circumstances.

And only a stupider, bigger bore would expect/hope for them to do so.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Tape Delay

The Associated Press now reports the musical quartet I loved so much at Tuesday’s Presidential Inauguration was actually pre-recorded. The musicians had wanted, indeed demanded, playing live but found in practice it was too cold to keep their instruments properly in tune. They played Tuesday without amplification and substituted a tape made two days earlier over the loudspeakers and TV feeds.

Luckily, the performance did not suffer from tape delay, causing the players’ actions to appear out-of-sync with their sound. Still, the bottom line is what we appeared to see/hear, as conveyed to us by the media, was a bit more polished and perfect than what was actually transpiring on the podium. Those skeptical over the phenomenon of Obama worship may now find the quartet’s performance as symbolic of the day as I previously did, in light of this subsequent revelation.

And rightfully so.

No matter how much one may like and admire Obama and no matter how much hope one possesses regarding his Presidency, it is important to remember that he is just a man and a politician at that – prone to the same flaws, mistakes, weaknesses, and scheming associated with all politics and the human condition in general.

Thus, I must regard with a skeptical eye the gushing analysis of Dana Priest in the Washington Post this morning that the Executive Orders signed by Obama yesterday represent “an end to the ‘war on terror’ as President George W. Bush had defined it.” According to Priest, it represented “a swift and sudden end to an era that was slowly drawing to a close anyway.”

To be precise, President Obama signed three Orders that will shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within one year, prohibit the CIA from using torture during interrogations, close secret CIA foreign prisons, end “extraordinary renditions” that transfer detainees to countries allowing torture for interrogations, and nullify every Bush Administration legal opinion justifying the use of torture.

Combined with his promise to review the military tribunals currently in place to judge detainees suspected of terrorism, these represent good first steps at a return to the rule of law and greater respect for civil liberties trod underfoot since September 11 in the name of homeland security.

However, anyone thinking this signifies a clean and complete break from abuses, potential and actual, put in place by the Bush Administration needs to think again.

The fact is that Obama raised as many howls from the American Civil Liberties Union over the content of the Orders as he did from conservative Republicans. The ACLU complains the measures contain ambiguities and unnecessary equivocations that could hold up trying detainees and releasing those held without just cause.

For their part, Republicans grumble that too many of those already released from Guantanamo have already returned to violent anti-American pursuits. However, their greatest hostility is reserved for the fear of Guantanamo inmates being moved to prisons located on U.S. soil, in a classic example of “not in my backyard” hypocrisy.

Republican Representative Pete Hoekstra of Michigan and Republican Senator Kit Bond of Missouri have been very loudly protesting that certain high-level Gitmo detainees, such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Mohammed al-Qahtani, should never be released and criticizing Obama’s orders as wholly failing to address such matters.

Their concerns are valid but a double-edged sword for them. Susan Crawford, the Pentagon’s senior official on the military commissions, recently ruled al-Qahtani ineligible for prosecution because the government’s past permissiveness resulted in its obtaining too much of the evidence against al-Qahtani through illegal use of torture.

Obama officials have also been guilty of hypocrisy. Retired Admiral Dennis Blair, nominee for Director of National Intelligence, pledged before a Senate panel yesterday never to allow torture on his watch but then refused to tell Senators whether he believed waterboarding was a form of torture, much in the manner of his Bush-era predecessors. White House Counsel Greg Craig was equally evasive on this topic when questioned.

What is more, despite yet another Obama Executive Order to increase transparency in government requests for access to information, the White House press corps bristled yesterday over the Administration’s decision to limit access by press corps’ photographers to some evens as well as its request not to use the names of officials giving a background briefing.

A little less adoration from the press for Obama is also a positive trend. While Obama may prefer an extended media honeymoon, he has demonstrated ability in the past to withstand criticism from it that his predecessor in the Oval Office never exhibited. Obama officials playing coy with the press is very different type of offense from Bush officials summoning Washington Post editors to the White House and strongly pressuring them to keep secret the existence of a secret CIA prison network, as detailed in Priest’s article.

Obama’s election opponent, Senator John McCain of Arizona, applauded Guantanamo’s closing but noted Obama had failed to address the fate of detainees. Yet he also seemed willing to work with Democrats on formulating a workable plan and had sharp words for Republican peers becoming increasingly combative over other Obama campaign initiatives.

“I remind all my colleagues – We had an election. I think the message the American people are sending us now is they want us to work together and get to work.”

That is good advice for Obama friends and foes alike. Politics means compromise and consensus. This means the President will not be able to make good on all of his campaign promises and even the ones he does enact will probably not look exactly as promised and take longer to realize than many might hope.

In the case of torture and detention, columnist Eugene Robinson suggests an investigation into the full excesses and possible illegal acts committed during the Bush years. His emphasis is not on prosecution, however. Rather, it is to bring to light what happened as an example for all to see, understand, and remember that terrible wrongs can happen even in an open, democratic society.

Democrats need to the lesson just as much as Republicans do. The surest way to repeat the mistake of the Bush years is to assume they cannot happen now that Bush is no longer at the helm and one of their own stands in his place.

Unquestioning hero worship, although all too common, has never become Americans well. Indeed, high expectations and a subsequent backlash of disappointment from some of his supporters is the thing that could hurt Obama in the long term far more than ongoing skepticism from his critics.

We should all exercise great reticence and vigilance regarding the Executive Orders signed yesterday because they are obviously flawed. However, our optimism over them is not totally misplaced because their very flaws testify to them as real attempts to correct real problems.

It is only realistic to understand and accept the Obama’s Administrations actions will never completely synchronize with the President’s lofty rhetoric, no matter how elegantly he expresses it. However, a little tape delay may be in order before jumping from this to the conclusion that Obama is doomed to failure and his supporters to ultimate disappointment as a result.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Simple Gifts

The Inauguration of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth President of the United States tested the precision machinery that marked his campaign organization. The day’s events ran later and later than scheduled, involuntarily assisted in its tardiness by ill health on the part of some of Washington D.C.’s more senior politicians, with Vice-President Cheney causing a delay in the morning and Senators Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd doing so in the afternoon.

Cheney pulled a muscle in his back while packing up his belongings. While I will not describe his injury as just deserts, this symbol of recalcitrance, within an Administration that prided itself on its projection of strength and moral surety, leaving the White House bent and wheelchair-ridden was a highly ironic image.

Kennedy’s and Byrd’s infirmities were no less emblematic, however, coming as they did on a day so many Americans viewed as symbolizing a “changing of the guard.”

Obama’s Inaugural Address stressed his desire to enact change. Although always confident and sometimes optimistic, it was more serious and somber rather than soaring in tone. If the absence of juicy sound bites or memorable tag lines disappointed anyone, I was not among their number.

The following line is the one I was listening for and, when it came, I found it as beautiful as any poet laureate’s verse.

“. . . we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of Law and the rights of Man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expediency’s sake.”

This was the change most important to me and foremost in my mind when I voted last November.

Prior to Obama’s speech, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts added to the day’s serendipity by having a little trouble getting correct the Presidential Oath of Office. (In fairness, Roberts was as new at this particular ceremony as Obama.)

The exact wording, as decreed by the U.S. Constitution, is supposed to run “. . . that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States . . .” Roberts, in addition to an apparent determination to interrupt Obama every time he attempted to repeat the Oath, changed around some of the words within the phrase to “ . . . that I will execute the Office of President to the United States faithfully . . . ”

Obama grinned at the mistake and paused in his recitation, in order to give Roberts a chance to correct his mistake. When the Chief Justice, following John Marshall’s tradition of the Supreme Court as the final arbiter of all things Constitutional, apparently decided his interpretation was sufficient if not superior to the Founder’s strict construction, Obama dutifully repeated the line with the word “faithfully” in the wrong place.

Perhaps the flub was Robert’s gift to nutjob attorneys. He has provided conspiracy theorists with a completely new avenue in which they may insist that Obama cannot legally serve as President because he did not say the Oath correctly.

In fact, the Constitution resolved any such doubts around this question with the Twentieth Amendment, whose Section 1 states, “The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January . . . and the terms of their successors shall then begin.”

Thus, Obama officially became President at noon on Tuesday, regardless of whether he had yet taken the oral oath, properly or improperly, or yet signed the written version of it.

Since the ceremony was running late, it turns out the Oath was not taken until several minutes afterward. At the stroke of noon, Obama and the rest of the crowd was enjoying a musical number entitled “Air and Simple Gifts,” arranged by John Williams of Star Wars fame, and played by a dream quartet consisting of Gabriela Montero, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, and Anthony McGill.

And so President Obama was not so much sworn into office by Chief Justice Roberts as he was sung into it by a Caracas-born Venezuelan American pianist, a Paris-born Chinese American cellist, a Palestine-born Israeli American violinist, and a U.S.-born African American clarinetist, all using their instruments as their voices and singing a traditional Nineteenth Century Shaker hymn.

That ought to contain enough soaring poetical allusions to satisfy anybody.

There will be those who worry that Obama’s call for a return to high ethical standards is dangerously na├»ve in context of the war against terrorism. Technology has conspired to create weapons of mass destruction that are easy for small groups or even individuals to carry and deploy. We are facing enemies who have proven ruthless in their dedication to their causes.

Yet if this particular task is truly beyond us as a nation without compromising the very values at home for which we claim to fight abroad, then perhaps we do not deserve to endure, much as Benjamin Franklin once warned our fledgling country about trading off liberty for temporary safety.

President Obama joined this admonishment in his Address, saying, “We remain a young nation but, in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”

Given the Baby Boomer generation’s desire to spoil our inner children with ever more complex and expensive toys, Obama was not asking us to lower our expectations. Rather he was suggesting we learn to turn from indulgence and egocentrism to find fulfillment in simpler things, such as the gifts selflessly won and given us by American heroes, large and small, past and present.

“Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that . . . we carried forth this great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free;
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be;
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shall not be ashamed
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Til by turning, turning we come round right.

– “Simple Gifts”

Friday, January 16, 2009

Casualty of War

IDF forces have bombed/attacked still another United Nation facility in Gaza because they say Hamas militants were in/near it and firing upon them. As a result, international revulsion over what has been nasty campaign in a long and ugly war is rapidly reaching a degree of nausea bordering on disgorgement.

There is extreme polarization among those acting as advocates for each side. In the case of those supporting Israel, there is great hostility toward charges of a disproportional response against Hamas. There is equal antagonism to suggestions of any moral equivalence between the Palestinian civilian casualties brought on by IDF forces versus Israeli civilian casualties caused by Hamas.

The mainstream justification endorses Israel as simply defending its own civilians by retaliating for long-standing rocket attacks fired at Israeli cities out of Gaza by Hamas. Israel never intentionally targets civilians, this argument runs, and views civilian deaths as unavoidable but always regrettable. Jonathan Chait concisely sums up this philosophy in the New Republic.

“Israel is trying to minimize civilian casualties while Hamas is trying to maximize them.”

Chait and his camp bristle when others, such as Ezra Klein in the American Prospect, counter there is “very little evidence that Israel tries to minimize civilian casualties,” calling it pure Hamas propaganda and anti-Semitic. Nobody on the Israeli side seriously advocates targeting civilians, they angrily retort.

Except, lately, there has been a growing endorsement of the idea by some.

Back in 2006, Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, head of the Tzomet Institute in Alon Shvut, publicly asked, “The terrorist state of Hamas has declared war on us and the deadly bombs are raining down on our civilians . . . Is it really out-of-bounds for us to use a similar weapon?”

Rosen declares, “Jewish ethics are saturated with the ethical message ‘if someone comes to kill you, kill him first’.” He goes on to quote a Biblical passage from Samuel II, which he says teaches, “Use the weapons of the enemy [against them].”

“Civilians get hurt in war,” Rosen concludes, “including women, children and the elderly. Only a population that forcibly vomits out terrorists from its midst . . . will be protected, according to any measure of Jewish morality.”

At the time, Andrew Friedman, the opinion editor of Ynetnews, dismissed Rosen’s reasoning as “nothing less than a bastardization of Jewish law, tradition, and ethics.” It would be easy to write off Rosen’s viewpoint as the brainchild of a fanatic. Unfortunately, multiple conservative pundits have begun echoing it since the start of the Israeli campaign against Gaza.

Michael Goldfarb, writing in the Weekly Standard, details a story about a Hamas leader killed when IDF forces bombed his Gaza home – along with eighteen others, including his four wives and nine of his children. Goldfarb suggests such collateral damage is unavoidable but also possibly makes the Israeli campaign more effective than if it did not occur.

“The fight against Islamic radicals always seems to come around to whether or not they can, in fact, be deterred, because it's not clear that they are rational, at least not like us. But to wipe out a man's entire family, it's hard to imagine that doesn't give his colleagues at least a moment's pause.”

Likewise, Marty Peretz of the New Republic offers tough advice to Israel.

“If there is a pause . . . this is what I would say to Hamas and to the people of Gaza – ‘If a rocket or missile is launched against us, if you take captive one of our soldiers (as you have held one for two and a half years), if you raise a new Intifada against us, there will be an immediate response. And it will be very disproportionate. Proportion does not work’.”

I understand the logic espoused above but it seems to me a slippery slope when used in conjunction with the insistence there is no moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas in the current conflict. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit appeals to our pragmatism when he declares, “Cycles of violence continue until one side wins decisively. Personally, I’d rather that were the Israelis, since they’re civilized people and not barbarians.”

Yet there is a circular quality to this logic when all tactics are on the table as valid. Israel is justified to target civilians because Hamas and other terrorists are barbarians and the thing that makes them barbarians is the fact that they unjustifiably target civilians. This is insisting the sauce is entirely different merely because we are serving it over goose instead of gander.

Groups earn a “terrorist” label because of their intentions and actions. In the case of Hamas, they are committed to Israel’s destruction, they purposefully target Israeli civilians, and they purposefully use Palestinian civilians as cover/shields. Nevertheless, does the fact that Hamas intends to harm civilians make them significantly worse than Israel in the present conflict, which has actually harmed far more civilians, intended or otherwise?

Israel or any nation at war must be particularly circumspect about their true intentions regarding civilian casualties. Israel promotes the fact it warns Palestinians ahead of time in areas where it plans to attack. On this basis, it places responsibility on Hamas or the civilians themselves if they fail to get out.

This means Israel almost certainly targets areas knowing that civilian casualties are possible or even probable. Such may truly be a “part of war” but it is important to recognize and acknowledge there is a huge difference between civilian deaths that are “unavoidable and regrettable” versus those that are “accidental.”

Israel may indeed seek to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza. However, their actions to date strongly suggest this goal is always secondary to their primary goal of dismantling Hamas infrastructure and killing Hamas fighters in the territory.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, agrees that civilian deaths occur during all wars and do not constitute war crimes by themselves. To qualify as such, harming civilians must be the only purpose of an attack or there must be knowledge that incidental civilian injuries will be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage.

Destroying every rocket launcher in Gaza, assuming this is even possible, will not secure Israel’s safety from Hamas or other terrorist groups nor provide it victory in the ongoing Palestinian question. These are longer-reaching and more subtle designs.

Alex Fishman, a columnist on the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, frames the Israeli strategy honestly and simply. “The answer to the question of what we want is simple – To stop the fire. In order to stop the fire, we have to reach an arrangement, and in order to persuade Hamas to reach an arrangement, we are now breaking its bones – among other reasons, so that the price it demands will not be high.”

The respected Israeli historian Tom Segev, writing in the newspaper Ha’aretz, agrees no longer-term or deeper victory than this can be expected. “Israel has . . . always believed that causing suffering to Palestinian civilians would make them rebel against their national leaders. This assumption has proven wrong over and over. Since the dawn of the Zionist presence in the land of Israel, no military operation has ever advanced dialogue with the Palestinians.”

Even Goldfarb undercuts his long and forceful argument for unrestrained aggression against both Hamas and Palestinian civilians by admitting, “It's true that there are very few examples in Twentieth Century history of a bombing campaign that actually broke the morale of a people at war and sapped them of the will to continue the fight.”

None of this intends to prove that Hamas is right and Israel wrong in the current conflict. Hamas openly engages in terrorist practices. I have said before that the first step in resolving the current conflict is for them to cease all rocket attacks against Israel and I maintain that opinion.

However, if Israel wishes to insist there is no moral equivalence between the results of their own actions in Gaza and Hamas, then the stupidest thing possible for them or their supporters is to promote the idea that Palestinians civilian casualties are not merely necessary and unavoidable in wartime but perhaps desirable to victorious ends as well.

A continued foolish insistence to the contrary will only serve to make any sympathy for Israel among the international community the latest casualty in a long and ugly war.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The White House at Bush Corner

Then, suddenly, Christopher Robin, who was still looking at the world with his chin in his hands, called out, “Pooh!”

“Yes, Christopher Robin?” said Winnie-the-Pooh.

“I'm not going to do Nothing any more.”

“Never again?”

“Well, not so much. They don't let you.”

– A.A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner, 1928

With only one week left in the Presidency of George W. Bush, many people, including the President himself, are reflecting over his deeds and endeavors and the motivations behind them.

Bush leaves the White House an extremely unpopular President. So did Richard Nixon. So did Harry Truman. Contemporary opinion polls, it would seem, are not always reliable indications on how history may come to view a particular Presidency.

Historians like to look for a “defining moment” in a Presidency – an event or incidence that reveals a President’s character in a nutshell and positions their place within the unbroken line of individuals to occupy the office.

Where George W. Bush is concerned, we can pinpoint that moment to September 11, 2001. In fact, we can say with authority it occurred at exactly 9:06 AM and took place in Sandra Kay Daniels’s second-grade classroom of the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota Florida. That was the moment when everything changed for Bush, most especially the nature of his Presidency. It was the moment when the world demanded he grow up and quit “doing nothing.”

Bush was reading with the class in a photo-op. He heard before entering the classroom that a plane had struck a tower of the World Trade Center in New York, in an incident initially assumed to be pilot error. As he read along with the children, his Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, entered the room and whispered into his ear –

“A second plane hit the other tower and America is under attack.”

The television cameras show Bush reacting with disbelief and befuddlement. After long seconds of staring blankly, he returns to reading with the second-graders. They are reading a story called “The Pet Goat.”

“A–girl–got–a–pet–goat. But–the–goat–did–some–things–that–made–the–girl’s–dad–mad,” the children chanted in unison.

Bush listened with interest, asking questions occasionally to encourage them. It was a story to which he could doubtless relate. His own Presidency had just become rather like that out-of-control goat.

George W. Bush had run for President in 2000 as part of bizarre combination to avenge and show up his father. The son of loving but distant parents who encouraged independence in their children, Bush was the oldest but not the brightest promise among his siblings. As such, he grew up with a need to prove himself combined with a need to insulate himself from disapproval.

The antithesis of an intellectual, Bush was intelligent but incurious about abstract ideas. Friends from childhood through his years at Andover and Yale agree he studied hard when he chose to study but that he placed greater emphasis on socialization. Bush was often the popular center of a crowd, based more on his easygoing manner and people skills than his accomplishments. He placed supreme emphasis on loyalty (to him), rather than on knowledge or talent, when choosing his most trusted associates.

There was a dark side to his personality. His laziness and love of fun led to excessive partying and dangerous addictions that offset his strengths. More ominous, when Bush felt strong and in control, he had a tendency to bully and enjoyed doing so.

Most of the time, however, he was doing nothing – breezing through life on his family name and using revelry and carousing as a means to escape responsibility.

When he found redemption through religion at age forty, he used his faith not only as a support or tool to help him through difficult times but also as a shield and bulwark from anything and everything that frightened him.

And so, Bush continued on through life doing nothing, much as he had before, but in politics he finally found the success that had eluded him in the oil business and baseball ownership.

Like any Republican his age, his idol was not his father but his father’s boss, Ronald Reagan, who demonized big government, lowered people’s taxes, and out-stared the Soviet Union. As his Vice-President, Bush Sr. was supposed to be Reagan’s heir. Instead, he failed and turned control of the White House back to Democrats after a single term.

The reasons for the father’s failure were twofold in the mind of the son. First, he had allowed Congress to raise taxes after promising never to do so. Second, he had failed to destroy Saddam Hussein in Iraq after pummeling his forces in the 1990 Gulf War. Both occurred because Bush Sr. was willing to listen to divergent opinions and compromise his views. The son was determined not to follow him in any of these “mistakes.”

He won the Presidency, albeit controversially, following a period of unprecedented prosperity. Then fundamental weaknesses in the economy began to appear. Bush did not falter in his principles. If Reagan gave out tax cuts, he would give out bigger ones – the largest in history.

Saddam would prove a more difficult goal to get past Congress and the American people. Bush did not know that morning he had just been given the opening he needed. Instead, he felt like the goat in the story, complete with disapproving father figure overseeing all.

Now he was being forced to redefine his Presidency to the exigencies of the moment. “They're coming after us,” he said over and over again of the terrorists in the days following the attacks. “If we leave [where we are fighting them now], they will follow us here.” For a person who had feared failure all of his life, that moment must have been paralyzing.

President Bush’s own words about that moment are most insightful.

“I am very aware of the cameras. I’m trying to absorb that knowledge. I have nobody to talk to. I’m sitting in the midst of a classroom with little kids, listening to a children’s story and I realize I’m the Commander-In-Chief and the country has just come under attack.”

Alone, with nobody to reinforce him, Bush was left sitting with his fellow children. He had to grow up instantaneously and on his own. So he adopted the bully persona, which has always been confused by the males within his family as synonymous with strength.

Instead of doing nothing, he now redefined himself as all purpose along a single mission – to fight terrorism as he defines this threat. He will never deviate.

At an anti-war rally in Washington D.C. on January 27 2007, Moriah Arnold from Harvard Massachusetts, who had organized a petition drive at her school, told the crowd about Iraq, “Now we know our leaders either lied to us or hid the truth. Because of our actions, the rest of the world sees us as a bully and a liar.”

Moriah was twelve years old at the time. When the Iraq War began, she would have been a second-grader. It took her only four years to learn her lesson. The man who was her leader had not learned his in his own six year journey from a second-grade classroom. He never learned it.

In the story Bush read that day, things turned out well for the goat. The girl that owned it was loyal, much like his own Laura, and defended it. In the end, it became a hero when it butted some would-be car robbers.

George W. had the same chance but was so convinced of his inherent heroism he ended up the goat instead. The White House at Bush Corner, rather than being the shining beacon as Bush envisioned, has instead become a bunker and a monument to fiasco and collapse.

And it all began in Ms. Daniels’s class on a bright September morning of that tragic day.

In the concluding words of his children’s story, A.A. Milne reassures us, “But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”

The sentiment is far from reassuring in this case but there, in that classroom, we will leave George W. Bush, forty-third President of the United States of America. We have no fear to leave him there. For when history does finally come calling for the final judgement regarding his legacy, this is exactly where it will find him again.

Friday, January 9, 2009

A Mockery

I call upon all to HEARKEN AND PAY STRICT ATTENTION to a matter of VITAL NATIONAL IMPORTANCE. On November 4 2008, a general election was held in which one BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA (a.k.a. BARRY SOETORO) received the majority of the popular vote. On December 15 2008, electors chosen in each of the fifty states by the general election met in their respective capitals and cast votes that resulted in an Electoral College victory for OBAMA. Yesterday, on January 8 2009, the newly elected Congress convened in session and formally certified the Electoral College’s results, thereby formally designating BARACK OBAMA as the PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

Throughout this process, LAWSUITS have been brought by CONCERNED INDIVIDUALS – CORT WROTNOWSKI, LEO DONOFRIO, PHILIP BERG, & GAIL LIGHTFOOT – arguing that OBAMA IS NOT A NATURAL-BORN CITIZEN of the United States as REQUIRED BY THE U.S. CONSTITUTION to serve in the office of President. The U.S. SUPREME COURT has DECLINED TO HEAR the suits by WROTNOWSKI and DONOFRIO. Multiple FEDERAL DISTRICT AND APPEALS COURTS have RULED AGAINST BERG. Now, CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS has agreed to present the LIGHTFOOT suit before the Supreme Court in conference.

It is becoming crystal clear that a TRAVESTY OF JUSTICE is taking place in this country, involving a CONSPIRACY to SUBVERT DUE PROCESS as well as the REASONABLE RULE OF LAW. To wit – WHY ON EARTH does the U.S. Judicial System continue to pay heed to the INSANE RAMBLINGS of a bunch of FANATICAL LUNATIC ASSHOLES?

The reasons stated by all of the litigants in this matter for suing is to PROTECT THE AMERICAN PUBLIC from allowing a FOREIGN PRETENDER to assume the Presidency. However, such a motivation makes sense ONLY IF the PLAINTIFFS ARE THEMSELVES U.S. CITIZENS, preferably NATURAL-BORN ones, with a negative stake under the consequences in the HIGHLY UNLIKELY EVENT that any of their MANUFACTURED CLAIMS AND ACCUSATIONS should prove to be even slightly true.

IN SPITE OF THIS, neither WROTNOWSKI, DONOFRIO, BERG, nor LIGHTFOOT have produced a SINGLE SHRED OF EVIDENCE to prove themselves as AUTHENTIC AND LEGITIMATE U.S. CITIZENS. They have filed no WRITTEN DOCUMENTATION. They have produced no AFFIDAVIDTS from ANY FEDERAL OR STATE AGENCIES as to their countries of origin.

This constitutes OVERWHELMING PROOF, using the very STANDARDS ESTABLISHED BY THEMSELVES, that these PATHETIC DIMWITS are actually FOREIGN PROVOCATEURS who seek to undermine the INTEGRITY OF THE UNITED STATES and throw the operation of our government HIGGLEDY-PIGGLEDY (i.e. “higgledy-piggledy” means “a real mess”).

We find further evidence of this in the OBVIOUSLY FALSE and SCRETLY THREATENING names they have adopted. Consider:

“Cort Wrotnowski” is an anagram of “W TOWN COORT RISK.”

“Leo Donofrio” is an anagram of “E FOOL IN DOOR.”

“Philip Berg” is an anagram of “P HIP GERBIL.”

Gail Lightfoot is an anagram of “I LOOT FIGHT GAL”

Granted, most of these phrases are NOT EXACT and none of them FULLY MAKES SENSE. However, they comprise a VAGUELY FRIGHTENING-SOUNDING QUATRAIN when put together and they are CLOSE ENOUGH for, say NOSTRADAMUS, so that PRETTY MUCH SETTLES THE MATTER . . . pretty much.

If they are not foreign agents, the litigants must surely be PARTISAN NINCOMPOOPS because if protecting the American public is their goal, then ANY MAMMAL WITH GREATER NEURAL ACTIVITY THAN A THREE-TOED SLOTH would realize more harm would be done to U.S. integrity and the day-to-day operation of government by LEGALLY ASAILING AND FORCIBLY REMOVING the RIGHTFUL PRESIDENT-ELECT than would be by leaving even a known foreign national in the Presidency.

The MAIN BENEFICIARIES of successful outcomes by the litigants’ actions WOULD NOT BE the American Public but rather FOREIGN GOVERNMENTS, particularly those HOSTILE TO the existence and aims of the United States. Article 3, Section 3 of the U.S. CONSTITUTION defines TREASON as including “. . . ADHERING TO [U.S.] ENEMIES, GIVING THEM AID AND COMFORT.” The Constitution goes on to state, “CONGERSS SHALL HAVE POWER TO DECLARE THE PUNISHMENT OF TREASON,” up to and including DEATH.

With this in mind and DESPITE THE FACT that I am usually a patient man, I find myself forced to call upon my IMPLIED POWERS as an INTERNET BLOGGER – granted to me by BLOGGER.COM under its CONTENTS POLICY – and ISSUE THE FOLLOWING DECREE:

WHEREAS, I am SICK AND TIRED of every PARTISAN NUTJOB who is pissed off about the way the election turned out ATTEMPTING TO HURT THIS COUNTRY by advancing PETTY ALLEGATIONS that are as POISONOUS as they are FRIVOLOUS.

AND WHEREAS, I am HEARTILY SICK of the courts continuing to treat this CLAPTRAP like it might even be worthy of consideration in some MISPLACED PAEAN on their parts to democracy and justice even for the CRIMINALLY INSANE.

AND WHEREAS, I am EXCEPTIONALLY SICK of ENDLESS TOP-POSTING SPAM ON WEBSITE DISCUSSION BOARDS about this subject, particularly those CONTAINING LINKS to websites, articles, or other posts that SAY EXACTLY THE SAME THING as the referring post.


1. The litigants and DROOLING IMBECILES known as WROTNOWSKI, DONOFRIO, BERG, & LIGHTFOOT must PROVE THEIR CITIZENSHIP by submitting official copies of their birth certificates TO ME. Digital images of said document posted on the Internet are insufficient – only PAPER ORIGINALS are acceptable, as I will want QUESTIONABLE EXPERTS WITH AXES TO GRIND to inspect them for the proper AUTHORIZING SIGNATURES and OFFICIAL SEALS. These must be submitted to me via U.S. mail. I cannot give my address or even my real name for that matter out of reasons of privacy. However, this does not change the fact that the ONUS IS ENTIRELY ON THEM to find me and FACTUALLY DISPROVE any RANDOM ALLEGATIONS I choose to make against them.

2. Failing to comply with Item 1 above, the litigants and SYPHILITIC BIRTH DEFECTS know as WROTNOWSKI, DONOFRIO, BERG, & LIGHTFOOT are ordered to be taken to the NEAREST TALL BUILDING of NO LESS THAN TEN STORIES IN HEIGHT and thrown off the top of it. Once this has been accomplished, the litigants are furthered ordered to then FALL TO THE GROUND, bounce twice, roll over, and ultimately DIE. Failure to comply with this last point could result in further lawsuits against the litigants. It should be NO PROBLEM, since the litigants obviously HAVE NO LIVES OF THEIR OWN or they would not have the time and energy to devote to such INANE DRIVEL.

3. Any Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, including its Chief Justice, as well as any federal District or Appellate Judge, who dignifies another PIECE OF SHIT LAWSUIT ALONG THESE LINES by agreeing to read a petition, let alone give it a hearing, shall be IMMEDIATELY IMPEACHED, PERMANENTLY DISBARRED from the further practice of law, and, ideally, SLAPPED SILLY ABOUT THE HEAD AND SHOULDERS until they come to their senses.

4. Any Internet poster composing another post on this subject should, rather than submitting it, go back to other USELESS BUT TIME-CONSUMING INTERNET PURSUITS, such as proving the FBI WAS BEHIND THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION or the JEWS WERE RESPONSBILE FOR SEPTEMBER 11.

To those who say, “THIS IS NOT OVER,” I say in reply, “GET OVER IT!”

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Bedbugs Of All Sorts

The old admonition “Don’t let the bedbugs bite!” has taken on new relevancy here in my hometown of Cincinnati Ohio. It appears that at a time when this particular vermin is on the ascendant, Cincinnati is bedbug central. That got me to musing about bedbugs of all sorts.

Cimex lectularius, better known as the common bedbug, is a reddish-brown, flattish insect of the family Cimicidae. One-quarter inch in length, about the size of an apple seed, they are nocturnal and live by feeding on the blood of warm-blooded hosts. In the case of human beings, this results in their tendency to hide in or near places where people sleep.

A ubiquitous bane for most of human existence, bedbugs seemed wiped out in the United States and most of the Western world by the 1950s, thanks to the widespread use of powerful pesticides, such as DDT. They reappeared just in time for the new millennium and grown in numbers ever since.

Overseas, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Australia, Canada, India, and Israel have all reported infestations. Closer to home, the Orkin Pest Control Services says that it has treated bedbugs in all but three U.S. states. North American cities, such as Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Boston, and Toronto, have declared bedbugs as a major public issue. In fact, one Toronto City Council member officially requested re-categorizing bedbugs as a “health hazard,” as opposed to their current status of mere “nuisance.”

Yet the problem seems unprecedented right here in Cincinnati. Bedbugs have bitten over fourteen percent of the local population in the past year. Reports of infestations come from places you might expect, such as homeless shelters and downtown hotels, but also from places like the courthouse and county administration building. Numerous police precincts and virtually every firehouse are contaminated. The bugs temporarily shut down a nearby Northern Kentucky school district.

A possible response that might occur to all this is that the good people of Cincinnati need to wash their bed sheets more frequently. Alas, such as reaction is as uniformed as it is impertinent.

First, unlike other louse, it is not dirt but the carbon dioxide exhaled during respiration that attracts bedbugs to their hosts and they feed on blood rather than waste. Even the worst infestations do not necessarily imply slovenly personal hygiene or housekeeping on the part of sufferers.

Second, while bedbugs sometimes live in mattresses and box springs, they are actually relatively mobile and also often dwell in the crevices of bed frames and headboards, under other furniture, in laundry and carpets, behind electrical plates and loose wallpaper, behind pictures, and in cracks in plaster. They even may hide in telephones, radios, TV's, and clocks. Researches have tracked the current U.S. outbreak back to three poultry facilities in Arkansas, Texas and Delaware, where bedbugs transferred from chicken to human hosts by riding home with workers in their clothing.

Third, while hot water or heat in general kills bedbugs, they are resilient and usually require treatments that are far more aggressive. Infested furniture often requires discarding or quarantine for long periods. The average bedbug feeds every five to ten days and lives for six to nine months. However, lack of food causes them to enter a hibernation-like dormancy, in which they can live for twelve to eighteen months on a single feeding.

Many over-the-counter insecticides do not work on bedbugs. The Cincinnati brood seems particularly resistant. University studies found chemicals effective on ninety percent of other strains do not affect some of the Cincinnati samples.

Finally, even if you succeed in killing the adults, there are still incubating eggs to worry about in the upcoming weeks. The average breeding female lays up to five eggs per day and about five hundred in her lifetime.

The most interesting aspect of bedbug reproduction, however, has to be the male bedbug’s penis. Bedbug eggs are not fertilized by copulation or spawning. Instead, the male’s genitalia is a sturdy, needle-like appendage, whose sharp tip is used to pierce the female’s exoskeleton and then inject sperm into her abdomen, a process known to scientists as “traumatic insemination.”

Although most people detest them as much as other vermin, bedbugs actually pose few serious risks to humans. Instances of them transmitting disease or reactions to their bites beyond intense, protracted itching are both rare. The most commonly observed side effects are fatigue and insomnia, which, except in the case of the worst infestations, are probably less due to physical biting than psychological concerns of sharing our beds with a host of creepy-crawlies.

Despite bothering us for millennia, slang regarding bedbugs is both relatively rare and benign. The Yiddish term vantz, meaning literally “a bedbug,” is an insult indicating an undistinguished person – a nobody. This is mild as opposed to identifying them as dirty or annoying or evil.

The phrase “crazy as a bedbug” enjoyed popularity in America around 1900 but appears largely serendipitous.

In modern times, within some gay communities, “bedbug” is slang indicating a homosexual who is extremely promiscuous or even a sex addict. It is unrelated but interesting to note that researchers dissecting bedbugs have found males carrying the semen of other males in their abdomens. This is presumably an unintended consequence of the possibilities introduced by traumatic insemination.

Such a revelation may cause folks such as Christian fundamentalists in places like Mississippi to exclaim, “We knew gays were converting others to their lifestyle by injections and the like!”

Speaking of the Magnolia State, the WPA Guide to Mississippi, published in 1938 by the Federal Writers Project, contains the following story about the Old Oak Tree Inn, a lodging popular in the 1820s with lawyers riding the circuit in Hinds County.

“From a bed in this hotel, Seargent S. Prentiss arose in the middle of the night and made a speech in defense of a bedbug that had bitten him. It was heard by a mock jury and judge, and the bedbug was formally acquitted.”

Seargent Smith Prentiss was a vantz of mildly entertaining interest because of similarities with his career to present-day political shenanigans. Born in Portland Maine in 1808, he moved to the frontier of Natchez Mississippi in 1829 and took up profession there as an attorney. Elected to the state legislature in 1836, he successfully sued to set aside the election of one John F.H. Claiborne to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1838. Prentiss then ran for and earned election to the vacant position as a Whig candidate.

He served only one term in Congress, as promised, but his motivation was self-advancement rather than a commitment to term limits. After an unsuccessful candidacy for the U.S. Senate in 1840, he returned to the private practice of law until his death.

It is worth noting that Prentiss lived and studied law in Cincinnati for several years in his youth. For all we know, here is where he first picked up the offending bedbug that plagued him later at the Old Oak Tree Inn.

However, it is an “extemporaneous” address he mounted in Jackson Mississippi in August 1835 – doubtless to draw attention to himself as a person of somber thought – on the occasion of the death of that French-American patriot and ally, the Marquis de Lafayette, which is most bedbug related.

It’s opening sentence begins with the reflection, “Death who knocks with equal hand at the door of the cottage and the palace gate . . .”

Like mortality, bedbugs are notable not only as inevitable and commonplace to the human condition but deserve special recognition for their egalitarian nature as well.

During the Cold War, our vermin of choice tended toward the cockroach, on the assumption the little buggers would outlast humanity in the event of nuclear annihilation. I nominate the bedbug as the new symbol of our combined horror and admiration. Its democratic if haphazard selection of hosts is a comforting and aspiring model in an economic era where the gap in wealth has become a chasm and continues to grow.

Unlike cockroaches and other parasites, whom we associate more with the often filthy conditions of poverty, the bedbug is as likely to bite a billionaire as a ghetto dweller, a Bible-school student as an Ivy Leaguer, and a Third World tribal member as a Superpower citizen. In the end, we all breathe, we all bleed, and we all itch.

I close these ruminations over bedbugs with the opening verse of a paean in song form by the Calypso master Theophilus “the Mighty Spoiler” Phillip from 1953.

Yes, I heard when you die after burial
You have to come back as some insect or animal
Well if so, I don’t want to be a monkey
Neither a goat, a sheep or donkey
My brother say he want to come back a hog
But not Spoiler, I want to be a bedbug
Just because . . .

Ah want to bite them young ladies, partner
Like a hot dog or a hamburger
And if you know you’re thin, don’t be in a fright
Is only big fat woman that ah going to bite

Monday, January 5, 2009

Out the Door

I still remember an Accounting 101 instructor joking with my class long ago over an easy way to remember which sides of a ledger that debits and credits belonged respectively by relating them to our classroom’s topography. Debits, he explained, belonged on the side of the ledger nearest the windows and credits on the side nearest the door.

At the time, I remember musing over whether any of our budding business careers might wind up doomed should any future employers place us in an office with the door and windows on the opposite sides to those of our classroom. (The potential problems presented by a cubicle’s topography never even occurred to me.)

As I watch the current debate over President-elect Obama’s proposed stimulus package, I wonder anew if the classroom for Political Science 101 happened to have both its door and windows on the same side. Nobody in Washington appears able to tell the difference between a debit and a credit.

The New York Times contains a page one story today that begins –

“President-elect Barack Obama plans to include about $300 billion in tax cuts for workers and businesses in his economic recovery program, advisers said Sunday, as his team seeks to win over Congressional skeptics worried that he was too focused on government spending.”

In addition to a substantial middle-class tax cut, Obama is backing off his campaign promise to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. He also now plans to let President Bush’s tax cuts for these same taxpayers expire in 2010, rather than try to repeal them sooner.

According to the article, Obama and his advisors hope that playing up tax cuts will allow them to frame his plan “as a balanced, pragmatic approach.”

This spin may well work but its success depends on the apparently valid assumption that Congress forgot there are two sides to a ledger long ago.

Spending increases and tax cuts do not “balance” each other from anything other than an partisan ideological/political perspective. From a simple accounting/business standpoint, both lead to increased red ink in the ledger.

Conservatives vexed by escalating deficits are quick to catch a paradoxical duality between Obama’s proposed spending versus his pledge to rein in the federal budget. “It's going to be interesting to see which Obama takes over,” says David Williams, vice- president of policy for Citizens Against Government Waste. “Is it the one who believes that government spending is the way to get us out of this mess? Or is it the one that wants to get rid of earmarks?”

Yet those same conservatives, especially Republicans, continue to extol tax cuts, despite them having the same (immediate) economic outcome. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out Sunday, tax cuts never face the same costs versus benefits justification consistently required of spending increases.

Obama’s policy shifts represent less a contradiction in terms than a change in direction. In light of the current financial crisis, he has chosen to prioritize stimulating the economy, particularly in the form of job creation, over budget restraint.

Beyond his aforementioned tax proposals, Obama wants to give employers a tax credit for each job created and use other incentives to deter them from cutting jobs. Still other tax breaks are under consideration to fuel capital investment.

Krugman maintains this is the only way to proceed, arguing the recent collapse in financial markets disproves the assertions of Milton Friedman and other monetarists and reinforces the contention of John Maynard Keynes that fiscal policy is the only effective tool of government under depression conditions.

Congressional Democratic leaders already warn a stimulus package will not be ready by Obama’s inauguration, principally due to hostility from deficit hawks. Obama’s new direction may not please them but at least he can explain/justify his change in direction. Republicans ought to take the same cynicism they stockpile for spending and apply a little self-reflection over their regard for tax cuts as a panacea.

If not, politicians will amply demonstrate, once again, that the only two-sided construct they understand is the one split down the middle by the Congressional aisle. In that case, the topography of the House and Senate chambers are irrelevant and any chance for fiscal restraint in the next four years is already through the windows and out the door in an attempt to balance an ideological ledger.