Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dead Reporter Walking by Charles Bowden

We are sitting in the sun somewhere in the United States of America. Emilio is hiding now with the family of a man who has connections in northern Chihuahua. But if this fact were known, the man's relatives in Chihuahua would be kidnapped and possibly killed, his businesses seized.

As we soak up the sun at this fine moment, Ascension is in a state of siege. Four women have vanished and are probably murdered. The head of the bank there and his wife have been kidnapped. In Palomas, a border town in the same county as Ascension, two dead women have just been found in the dump – one of them pregnant. The Mexican army is everywhere and can be ill-tempered. Six months ago I was there with a friend who took a photograph of them downtown, a block from the port of entry, and they came racing at us with machine guns. In the streets, children beg, their skin a gray cast that suggests malnutrition. Work has fled – the people-smuggling business has moved because of U.S. pressure in the sector, and so the town is studded with half-built or abandoned cheap lodgings for migrants heading north. Also there is an array of narco-mansions whose occupants have moved to duck the current violence. Last year, the U.S. Port of entry as accidentally strafed during a shoot-out. There is more dust than life in the air of the town.

Back in Juarez it goes like this at the new death house. On the first day, they announce one body. On the second day, three bodies. On the third day, one more body. Now it is a week in, the digging continues, and the tally seems to be nine bodies. But since the heads are severed from the bodies, the exact count might take a while. Besides, there is one more patio to dig up. No one really knows what is going on.

The editor of one local daily estimated that his publication reports maybe 15% of the action. For example, fake cops have been setting up checkpoints in the city and seizing guns. In a forty-eight-hour period, a top cop is mowed down, four other residents are murdered, three banks are robbed, and, by a fluke, $1.8 million is seized by U.S. Customs because a driver from Kansas got turned back by Mexican customs and reentered the United States. Also, the Mexican army bagged 4.5 tons of marijuana. All this is the 15% that gets reported.

As I sit in the sun with Emilio he tells me of the current violence in the towns he once covered, and none of these incidents have been reported in the U.S. Press or the Mexican press. Nor will the be. He knows what is happening because he has retained his sources. And he knows that it will not be reported because to publish is to invite death.

There is a curious disconnect between the Mexican press and the U.S. Press, one where the U.S. Press pretends that reporting in Mexico is pretty much the way it is in the North, where the Mexican press considers American reporters to be fools. Sometimes Emilio deals with American reporters who are fluent in Spanish, but that is not enough because “they imagine things they don't know", and so the U.S. reporters are marginalized by the Mexican reporters because they figure they are hopeless.

Emilio Gutierrez is one of eight children raised in Nuevo Casas Grandes, a small Chihuahua town against Sierra Madre. His father was a master bricklayer, his mother was a housewife. His childhood was poverty. The army has a post in his town. One day, a very pretty classmate named Rosa Saenz shows up, her hair and skin coated with mud. Her breasts have been sliced with blades and she has been stabbed fifty times. She has been raped. Her body is found in an abandoned chicken farm on the edge of town. In the end, no one is charged with the crime. Everyone in town knows the girl was raped and murdered by the army but no one says anything about it. Emilio was thirteen years old.

He always wanted to be a writer and worked on the high school paper, a weekly printed on a mimeograph machine. Emilio emerges in high school with a first-rate mind where intelligence can be a fatal trait. He learns photography, and when he graduates, a new daily is starting in Ciudad Juarez, El Diario, and he gets hired to take pictures. Soon he is a reporter.

He learns corruption almost instantly. He is paid very little, and payday is every Friday. He explains the system in simple terms. Every Monday, a man comes who represents the police, the government, the political parties, and the drug leaders. He gives each reporter a sum that is three or four times his wage. This is called the sobre, the envelope.

”Ever since I as a little kid,” he continues, “ I listened to my parents criticize bad government. We knew it was corrupt.” Now he is part of a corrupt system.

“Corruption at the paper,” he explains,” was subtle. The politicians would win over my boss with dinners and bags of money. The reporter on the beat would get pressure sometimes from the boss not to report certain things like the bad habits of politicians, the houses they own, the girlfriends. The narcos also gave out money but I was always afraid of them. They owned businesses, buy ads, have parties and celebrities and horses and you cover that, they would pay you to cover that, but you never mentioned their real business.”

He sees Mexico as genetically corrupt. A corrupt Aztec ruling class fused with the trash of Spain - the conquistadors – and produced through this marriage a completely corrupt Mexico. This thesis helps him face the reality around him.

“In Mexico,” he says “we operate in disguise. There is one face and under that is another mask. Nothing is upfront. The publisher wishes to perpetuate the system. But if it is clear that you are taking bribes, you will be fired. You must take it under the table because if you talked about it openly, that would affect the image.”

He is entering a bar one night, when he sees the mayor of Juarez leaving with some narco-traficantes. The mayor pauses by the street, drops his pants and pisses into the gutter. Emilio writes up a little note and puts it in the paper. He is nineteen and doesn't understand.

The next day he is called to the mayor's office.

The man is at a big desk with a check register.

He says, “How much?”

He wants Emilio to publish a story saying his earlier story was a lie.

Gutierrez does not take the money. He realizes later that this is a serious error because he learns the mayor and the publisher are very close.

“I quit and take a job in radio before something bad can happen.”

Later, when things calm down, he returns to Diario a wiser man.

Here is what a wise man knows: that certain people – drug leaders, the corrupt police, the corrupt military – these things cannot be written about. That other people should be mentioned favorably unless they get caught in circumstances so extreme that the news cannot be suppressed. Then, they appear in the paper, but the blow is softened as much as possible. Nor are investigations favored. If someone is murdered, you call the proper authorities and you print exactly what they tell you. But you don't poke around in such matters.

Emilio loves politics and develops one-page stories dutifully interviewing politicians and the nakedly publishing their inane answers. Sometimes, when a leading drug figure is arrested, usually as a show to placate the U.S. Agencies, he interviews this person , also. He is hard-driving, at least until his son is born. After that, he becomes cautious because he must think of his son, and not give in to the dangers of ambition.

For a while, he works for a small radio station and he makes one report on how a mayor in a neighboring town has fired the local drug counselor for the schools. He wonders on the air if the officials themselves are clean.

He soon finds out because a mayor of another town is listening. This mayor has just gotten out of a treatment center in El Paso for cocaine addiction. He storms down to the radio station and offers the owner ten thousand pesos to fire Emilio, The owner obliges him.

He moves from paper to paper and eventually winds up in Ascension, the region of Chihuahua where is was raised. He has mastered, he thinks, the rules of the game. He writes down answers and publishes them. He avoids drug dealers. He is careful about offending politicians. He does not look into the lives of the rich, nor does he explore how they make their money. He is clean, he avoids taking bribes. He is not looking for trouble

This is the reality of Mexican reporting, where a person is inside but outside, where a person knows more than the public but can only say what is known in code and this code had better not be too clear. A world where submission is essential and independence is eventually fatal.

He is stressed because, even though he plays by the rules, he cannot know all the rules and he cannot be certain when the rules change. He can understand certain things. When a general comes to Chihauhua in April 2008 with an army and says if there any rapes and robberies, they are to be assigned to Mexican migrants, well, that is the way it will be reported.

He will obey his instructions for a very simple reason.

For three years, he has been afraid he will be murdered by the Mexican army. He has, to his horror, committed and error. And nothing he has done in the past three years has made up for this mistake. He has ceased reporting on the army completely. He has focused on safe things such as fighting the creation of a toxic waste facility in the town. He has apologized to various military officers and endured their tongue lashings. Still, this cloud hangs over him.

He can remember the day he blundered into this dangerous country.

Murder City; Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields by Charles Bowden; Nation Books, N.Y., 2010

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The American Gas Chamber by Scott Christianson

Until now there has not been a book or even a single major article exploring this dreadful history. This book tells the story of the American gas chamber from its early imaginings to the nightmarish last gasp of Walter LeGrand in Arizona on March 3, 1999. The investigation goes into several different arenas of modern science, war, industry, medicine, law, politics, and human relations, marshaling evidence from many quarters. Studying this subject has been a painful and demanding experience- much remains to be learned for those willing to probe for it – but criminal punishments and crimes against humanity, I have long believed, can reveal many things about a civilization, and the tragic saga of the rise and fall of the lethal chamber is full of the stuff philosophers and tragedians dwell upon – and fools ignore at their own peril.

Altogether, between 1924 and 1999, 594 individuals were executed by lethal gas in the United States, a majority before the legal revolution under the Warren Court in the 1960s when, for the first time, illegally obtained evidence was ruled inadmissible, prisoners could no longer be subjected to the “third degree”, not informed of their legal rights, questioned without a lawyer or denied access to counsel or appeals because they were poor.

In no case did the U.S. Supreme Court ever rule by majority opinion that execution by lethal gas constituted “cruel and unusual punishment incompatible with the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society”, however contrary to the testimonies of witnesses to such executions and the affidavits presented to lower appeals courts such as that of Dr. Richard Traystman, director of the Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine Research Laboratories at Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1983:

“Very simply, cyanide gas blocks the utilization of the oxygen in the body's cells...the person exposed to this gas remains conscious for a period of time, in some cases for several minutes. During this time, the person is unquestionably experiencing pain and extreme anxiety. The pain begins immediately, and is felt in the arms, shoulders, back and chest. The sensation is similar to the pain felt by a person during a heart attack, where essentially, the heart is being deprived of oxygen... The agitation and anxiety a person experiences in the hypoxic state will stimulate the automatic nervous system, the person may begin to drool, urinate, defecate or vomit. There will be muscular contractions. These responses can occur both while the person is conscious or when he becomes unconscious.. the brain remains alive from two to five minutes. The heart will continue to beat for a period of time after that, perhaps five to seven minutes, or longer, though at a very low cardiac output. Death can occur ten to twelve minutes after the gas is released in the chamber.”

Dr Traystman further testified that the execution by lethal gas is sufficiently painful that it is disfavored in the scientific community as a method of putting animals to sleep.

Most readers will prefer not to read accounts of executions by lethal gas where all does not go as planned- they seldom did- such as the prolonged thrashings, clawings, screamings and convulsions of the victims and the unforgettable horrors visited upon the witnesses.

Though U.S. Supreme Court still could never bring itself to address the question the question whether such executions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, the court of world opinion did - The International Court of Justice in the Hague in the Case Concerning the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, Germany vs United States of America, General List No 104 (March 3, 1999), a matter to which President Bill Clinton and Governor Hull of Arizona turned a blind eye.

To the rest of the world the gas chamber represented one of modernity's worst crimes; it was an instrument of torture that first had been disguised as a humane alternative to pain and suffering. What originally had seemed to be such a noble and practical idea, even by such luminaries as H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence and Bernard Shaw, turned out to be something else entirely.

Dreamers, scientists, soldiers, merchants, lawmakers, lawyers, physicians, governors, journalists, wardens, keepers – and, of course, the condemned prisoners – all made their unique contributions to the rise and fall of the gas chamber. But the creation of a “painless and humane” method of killing proved elusive. Despite all of their Utopian schemes, laboratory experiments and mathematical formulas, blind obedience, commercial arrangements, legislative clauses, legal briefs, stopwatches, execution protocols, and public relations pronouncements, America's use of lethal gas as a method of capital punishment- despite all that was witnessed during the Holocaust- only ended with the close of the twentieth century. But its awful legacy will continue for a long time to come.

[It tells us something about ourselves as Americans that cannot be erased by mere forgetting]

The Last Gasp; The Rise and Fall of The American Gas Chamber by Scott Christianson; University of California Press, Berkeley, 2010

(comments to follow)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Lone Man in the Amazon by Monte Reel

It began with a rumor, a scrap of information picked up by a health worker delivering antimalarial medicine in the scattered villages of southern Amazonia. In the middle of 1996, he stopped at a lumber-yard in Brazil's Guapore River Valley, near the Bolivian border. Loggers there spoke of a wild man who roamed the surrounding rain forest, which they occasionally ventured into in search of mahogany trees. The man was a naked savage, they said, probably an Indian. But he didn't seem to be part of any tribe. From what they could see, he lived alone in a tiny thatched hut, with no apparent ties to another human soul.

That's where the story dead-ended. The few who claimed to have caught a glimpse of the man said he was as quick and crafty as a jaguar – get near him, and he'd vanish into the forests' dappled shadows. Describing encounters with him apparently was like trying to remember an elusive dream: they were pretty sure it happened, but couldn't quite grasp the details.

It was a flimsy splinter of jungle lore, but it stuck with the health worker when he left the lumberyard and eventually made his way to the town of Vilhenas, where Brazil's federal agency in charge of Indian affairs maintained a regional outpost. He previously had met the man who ran the office, Marcelo dos Santos, while delivering medicines to one of the regions indigenous reserves.

If anyone could dismiss the rumor outright and label it a tall tale unworthy of a second thought, it was Marcelo. His job was to locate Indian tribes that remained isolated in the forest, completely cut off from the main current of Brazilian society. His small team of field agents was called the Guapore Contact Front, on of five regional teams within the Isolated Indians Division of Brazil's National Indian Foundation, known as FUNAI. The Isolated Indians Division was less than a decade old, created just before the country ratified a new constitution in 1988. The new national charter specified that if Indians lived on a patch of forest, that land was theirs - not a single tree could be touched by an a outsider.

But a fundamental shortcoming threatened to completely undermine the documents intentions: no one knew how many tribes actually lived in Brazil's massive portion of the Amazon, or how much land they could potentially could claim. So if a rancher had a natural incentive to chase the Indians off the property- by various means including murder- before the government could document their presence. The contact fronts were created to defuse the threat of clashes between settlers and tribes. They were often attacked by both sides!

When Marcelo received the rumor about the spectral wild man believed to be an Indian, he paid special attention....

In October 2006,with a collection of a decades worth of field notes and fresh evidenced amassed from the jungle- huts and pitfalls, tracks and planted cornstalks, collections of edible nuts and fruits, axe cuts into various trees for various gathering purposes- the renamed Guapore Ethno-Environmntal Protection Front went to FUNAI president Mercio Gomes with a formal proposal for the creation of a thirty-one-square mile Tanaru Indigenous territory, which the they named for the river that ran through it. They suggested that if the reserve was approved, the Guapore Protection Front would establish a camp of the border of the territory and conduct monthly surveys to make sure the Indian was alive and well. Under no circumstances would they attempt to directly interact with the Indian, they wrote, unless the Indian himself initiated contact. The reserve would be meaningless if they didn't establish conditions not only to protect his land but also to give him peace.

In Brasila, the government agencies leadership didn't have to debate their pitch too long. Marcelos dos Santos was by this time in charge of dealing with the request. His intimate knowledge of the situation- including long legal battles which had eventually forced him to flee Rondonia- equipped him to make a convincing argument that the man was endangered and in need of protection. The shooting of Tunio in one encounter with the lone Indian had also raised the case's profile ; the only question was whether the Indian represented a “tribe” that FUNAI could legally protect After reviewing the case, the agency's attorney general issued his opinion in the final weeks of 2006.

“A single individual can be considered a 'people' if he is the only remnant of his culture and ethnic group, and is distinct from the national collective in his customs and traditions”, declared Luiz Fernando Villares.

To quash the temptation for anyone to simply kill the Indian to open up the land for development, the agency's director of agrarian affairs prepared an explanation for local ranchers.

“The land is property of the Union (Brazil), and must remain so until the end of the Indian's life,” said Nadja Binda, “ in the case of his death, the property will continue to be the property of the Union.”

With Marcelo's prodding, the customary bureaucratic delay of a year or more for the declaration of new indigenous territories was avoided. In January 2007, less than a month after the request, the Brazilian government made it official. The borders of the Tanaru Indigenous Territory were demarcated. The territory would be up for reviewed in a few years, but Marcelo and Algaer Altair finally succeeded in establishing a zone of protection for a man they had never really met and whose language they could not have understood.

The suddenness of the resolution almost felt anti climatic, and perhaps it was appropriate. It was a victory , but what had the Indian won? Protection, certainly, but no matter how much land they reserved for him, there was no bringing back the rest f his tribe. All that they could do was respect the right that Marcelo had identified years before: the right to die alone.

As long as the Indian stayed within the thirty-one-square-mile zone, they believed he would be safe. For their part, they resolved to do nothing to chase him away.

In cities such as Seoul and Tokyo, more than one-million people live in the average thirty-one-square- mile plot of land. In Manhattan and its immediate surrounding, the same area houses 2.5 million people. If a thirty-one square-mile area were populated as the same levels as the most crowded parts of Kong Kong about 6.1 million people would live there.

The Tanaru Indigenous Territory has a population on 1 ; a triumph for the individual, culture and humanity itself, for those for feel no injustice however seeming insignificant ought to be tolerated, and of ever lasting glory to the government of Brazil. Viva Brazil!

“The Last of The Tribe; The Quest To Save A Lone Man in The Amazon by Monte Reel; Scribner, NY 2010

Sunday, July 18, 2010

'Closure' by Hans-Georg Moeller

Typically, the following explanations are offered to explain why so many wrongful convictions come about in death penalty cases in the United States: racial prejudice, illegal acts by overzealous prosecutors, police or judges who misrepresent the facts in order to get a guilty verdict; inadequate counsel because of incompetent court-appointed attorneys or the defendant's inability to pay for an effective defense team. I have no doubt that all these factors have contributed to a good number of wrongful convictions ( 102 between 1973-2004 and who knows how many wrongful convictions remained undetected?). But I think the strong emphasis on morality that is typically part of U.S. Trials involving the death penalty, along with the resurgence of retributive ethics, probably plays an even more important role.

[ see also http://johnshaplin.blogspot.com/2009/05/mystery-of-judicial-performance.html ]

In recent years A new pseudopsychological term was coined: “closure”. While the moral shift to victims' interests was obviously a shift towards a morality of retribution, vengeance, or both, these terms do not sound very nice. “Vengeance is an anachronism with a bad press. Something new, something personal, and something that sounded both civilized and refined would be the best candidate for an appealing label for personal involvement in executions. From this perspective, the evocative term 'closure' was a public relations godsend.” ( “The Symbolic Transformation of American Capital Punishment” by Franklin E. Zimring).

The term was not used at all in the context of the death penalty before 1989, but since then it has had a fantastic career. It is now quite rare to hear about a death penalty case in the mass media without it being mentioned. The term has no official function in legislation or legal proceedings – it is still not a legal concept. But it of great value for both prosecutors and the mass media in exploiting the moral potential of a murder trial. A poll from 2001 showed that 60 percent of Americans think that the death penalty is fair because it provides “closure”. What a remarkable rating for an argument that didn't even exist twelve years earlier!

The term “closure” is used in the American mass media as a good reason to kill evil people – and how could a relative of the victim interviewed on TV not use it? Relatives have learned from the media and prosecutors that they are not only entitled but also expected to yearn for closure if they are to be good victims. Closure has become a symbolic moral necessity. If the media did not speak of closure, the story would lose some of its moral drama.

There is no psychological evidence that closure happens through the execution of an offender, but this is, of course, irrelevant since the term is not used psychologically either in the mass media or by the prosecutors. Its function is to express the moral necessity for retribution. “It is not known whether there are psychological advantages in mourning the loss of a loved one when that loss leads to an execution, nor is there any indication that the adjustment to the loss of a loved one in a homicide is any different in death penalty states than in non-death penalty states.” ( Zimring) Some states even go so far as to let a victim's relatives witness the execution of an offender for the sake of closure.. I can hardly imagine how this could be psychologically beneficial. Closure is a psychological phantom, but an extremely efficient moral and rhetorical device in U.S. Death penalty practice and media coverage.

A last important observation about “the transformation of execution into a victim service gesture” made by Zimring is that “it links the symbolism of execution to a long American history of community control of punishment.” Zimring documents in great detail how the current U.S. practice of the death penalty is related to earlier forms of community control of punishment, namely lynching and vigilantism. The moral cult of the innocent victim and the evil offender historically connects current legal practice not with the legal system but with extra-legal (and now illegal) acts of public violence that were once seen as morally right. The moralization of trials that involve the death penalty makes them less a purely legal procedure than a new form of public – constituted by the mass media – lynching.

The death penalty advocate Walter Berns says “There is something in the souls of men that requires crimes to be revenged. “ I do not know if there is something like this in the souls of men, but there is certainly something in communication in the courtroom and the mass media that makes judges and jurors decide that revenge is a moral necessity – that the evil one must be killed – and that this communication often overrides facts 'beyond a reasonable doubt' and the misericordia that underwrites sound judicial practice.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Moral Fool by Hans-Georg Moeller

Most situations in everyday life – having breakfast, driving to work, doing our jobs, watching TV- do not confront us with moral dilemmas. Most of the time we neither think nor speak in ethical terms at all, and even when we do , we are often not entirely sure what exactly is, and what is not, ethical. Within the family circle, for instance, ethics are usually of secondary importance to love. We may condemn what our spouses, our children or or parents do but since we love them, this condemnation or disapproval does not normally result in a moral judgment; we do not think of them as evil. In fact when love distinctions are replaced by ethical distinctions then the emotional harmony within a family is in danger, as well represented in John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden.

Another example of this hypothesis is traffic law the main function of which is not to sanction and get rid of evildoers but to provide a smooth playing field in a highly complex society. Parking tickets and other minor offenses are generally laughed about. Speeding regulations are often arbitrary and contingent and violated with impunity a certain times by just about everyone who drives a car. Drunk drivers who end up injuring or killing others are morally condemned though if they just end up killing themselves this tends to be regarded more as a tragic mistake than an indication of a bad moral character.

Sports is another activity which is not primarily of an ethical nature. If the ethical doctrine of fairness as devised by the moral philosopher John Rawls were applied to basketball, for instance, then the height of the basket would be determined by the average height of the players engaged in each game. Professional wrestling, a parody of sport, illustrates the point. Unlike in real sports competition, there are no explicit rules in place, the result is fixed; and the safety of the combatants is made a mockery of- and there is more often than not a moral storyline of narrative attached to the show. Professional wrestling is a comedy that demonstrates what would happen to sport if it were a moral activity.

The author suggests that , for an empirical point of view, in everyday life and even in most of our important decisions, ethics or morals do not provide useful guide. It is doubtful, for example, that becoming righteously angry with an obnoxious colleague, boss or family member is more beneficial than avoiding a moral a mindset altogether . Actually, when moral discourse prevails, disaster often appears. The demand for “moral smartness” ( as in the “smart diplomacy” advocated by the present U.S. Administration, or the debate over immigration) is a symptom of social crisis and a society verging on hopeless disorder and accumulating misery.

In identifying himself as a moral fool, the author is not advocating immorality or moral relativism. Nor does he claim to have achieved perfect amorality. In so far as moral mindsets go, however, the extreme form of labeling people good or bad, judgments which concern the person as a whole, are not helpful in the promotion of social harmony and happiness.

On the whole the book is not an academic treatise but he does quote Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan in support of his proposition: that such categories as fairness and justice are “ever used with relation to the person that useth them; one calleth wisdom, what another calleth fear; and one cruelty what another justice. . . . and therefore such names can never be true grounds of any ratiocination.”.

Hobbes' thinking can be viewed as relativistic and, at any rate, most philosophers don't like to use him because, in a modern context, his writings seem to support the central authority of the State however arbitrary its rule. But the author is simply trying to point out that trying to come to common agreement on moral matters is among the most difficult, trying, unsuccessful and unsatisfying of all human endeavors. This is probably the reason so many people find it necessary to rely on Divine Authority ( as they might interpret various passages in Holy [unassailable] Scripture). As far as secular ethics go the author completely demolishes Immanuel Kant's notion ( “Critique of Practical Reason”) that there are “a priori” moral principles- of epistomological or biological origin - that are universally valid , however much such an idea has become the foundation for arguments in favor of Just and Unjust wars.

The author's discussion of the theory of Just War is brilliant. The ascriptions “innocent” and “guilty are largely unwarranted and, in the end, most of the arguments in this theory boil down to an arbitrary division of the world into those who deserve to live and those who deserve to die. To summarize as briefly as possible, the author admires the position of the ancient Chinese Daoists who “did not care much for the moral smartness of war but were primarily interested in avoiding and preventing war which they regarded as a form of natural disaster like earthquakes, hailstorms and hurricanes. Like other natural facts, they did not regard war as good ( Hitler thought they were essential to the preservation of civilization) or bad ( as a religious passivist might) though they accepted that sometimes it is unavoidable. When war did occur their idea was to remain on the defensive, let the enemy wear himself down and to limit the expense and damage as much as possible.

In reality the theory of Just and Unjust Wars is nothing more than a weapon a war itself, and no better at controlling its wanton destruction or 'collateral damage' than modern, hyped up 'smart bombs' which simply multiply the occasion for the use of bombs anyway. In consideration of war it is always better to think outside the moral mindset, in terms of love ( e.g. do you want your sons and daughters slaughtered in this fashion?) and legal terms (e.g. should hypothetical 'risk factors' prompt preemptive actions that violate the standards or spirit of national or international law?).

In regards to war, as in so many other matters, the Media bears primary responsibility for maintaining moral discourse, as opposed to discourses predicated upon love and the law. . The media is, however, is highly carnivalistic in its character- inconsistent and highly ambiguous. It is often hard to take the 'moral outrages' in the media absolutely seriously because they presented with a sort of joy and ironic ethical detachment.

Everyone with an interest in such matters should read Chapter Twelve- “Ethics and the Mass Media” in this book. In recognition of the limitations of this blog and my own obvious incapacity I can't do much better than to quote the last paragraph directly, understanding how inadequately this captures the complete flavor of the author's narrative.

“ I do not want to be misunderstood here. I am not suggesting that the mass media democratize ethics or that they lead to some sort of ethical progress. The morality of the mass media is a virtual morality; it does not correlate with the moral convictions of individual people; it does not give people a voice. It is rather an effect of a peculiar form of communication of a specific social system, namely the mass media. While the mass media proliferate morality on a global scale, they also subvert it. The mass media have no moral convictions; they are naturally amoral and intertwined in the endless, meaningless and aimless spiral of superficial and contradictory moral communication [ which usually exist in the realm of fantasy as far as solving the problems of society go]. In this sense, the mass media function in a highly paradoxical and ambiguous way. While they flood society daily with moral discourse on a massive scale, they also constantly undermine the credibility of this very discourse. They maintain, spread, and accelerate moral communication but carnivalize and desubstantiate it at the same time. The mass media are, indeed, ethically rather foolish.”

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Plight of the Nobodies in Pakistan By Imtiaz Gul

What is clear on the tribal frontiers in the Northwest Territories of Pakistan is that the Taliban has capitalized on the absence of good governance and of swift justice. Common people, already reeling under backbreaking food inflation and a tormenting energy crisis, feel that politicians, criminals, drug traffickers, and officials have ganged up against them to deprive them of an honorable living. The Taliban and like-minded religious militants have successfully exploited these feelings while sowing fear in the minds of all government servants. Providing justice on the spot, prosecuting criminals, and ensuring fair play to victims of injustice are effective tools that the Taliban use to make themselves look like a God-fearing, formidable force that is eager to come to the public's rescue.

Little attention, however, is paid to the consequences of Taliban advances. Many frustrated people – and not just conservatives – overlook the problems that arise out of the Taliban code of life. It was the suppression of individual liberties in the name of a questionable puritanical brand of Islam that the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban practiced, and are hoping to put into practice again. This obviously does not augur well for Pakistan's tribal area or the country as a whole.

A majority of the people [The Nobodies] are faced with demoralizing choices, wedged between the receiving end of an overbearing and inefficient bureaucracy - which is unhelpful, obstructive, corrupt - and radical, sometimes viciously sectarian Islamists. They are often caught in the crossfire between insurgents and the army which has increasingly bowed to the wishes of the occupation forces in Afghanistan and moved into the frontier territories with overwhelming force and stayed for increasingly longer periods of time, disrupting traditional economies, exacerbating tribal conflicts and creating large refugee populations.

At the bottom of the pecking order in Pakistan are mentally unstable teenagers in asylums, orphanages, schools, and refugee camps across Pakistan. Most of the suicide bombers used in the roughly eighty attacks inside Pakistan between January 2007 and July 2008 were Pakistanis and Afghans recruited from these populations.

The Iraq war helped popularize suicide bombings through-out the Muslim world and bears some responsibility for Pakistan's current predicament. The war had an enormous impact in Pakistan. Most Pakistanis thought it was an unjust war, imposed on Iraq under a flimsy pretext so the reaction to it was quite intense, especially among those who were wary or critical of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Almost every discussion of the Afghan war in Pakistani social and political circles ( 'the chattering classes') invariably brings in the U.S, invasion of Iraq and its consequences for Pakistan.

But it was the second drone strike on January 13, 2006, targeting Ayman al-Zawahiri in Damadola, a village in the Bajour territory, followed by another on October 29 that killed eighty-three students at a seminary in Chengai, that really triggered suicide bombings in Pakistan, along with the operation targeting Islamabad's Red Mosque in July 2007.[ http://johnshaplin.blogspot.com/2010/02/red-mosque-by-nicholas-schmidle.html ]

Until 2007 suicide bombings mostly targeted restaurants and public places frequented by foreigners. This abruptly changed after the seizure of the Red Mosque when terrorists began targeting army, police, and intelligence facilities and army convoys in the Northwest Territories. No place in Pakistan is secure against such attacks and religious leaders who have spoken against suicide bombings as Un-Islamic have themselves been bombed or otherwise assassinated.

At the conclusion of his book the author asserts that this tactic has likely backfired on the militants. Previously the government and the ruling elite in the army had been willing to negotiate, bargain with or play-off militant groups one against the other. The suicide bombings have pretty much convinced them that this is no longer possible and that their best interests is to cooperate fully with the U.S. and NATO's global “war on terror” and attack all militant groups without discrimination.. The hope for honest government, however, with basic infrastructures- water, power, transport, public schools, hospitals, and some measure of economic justice- remains largely unfulfilled.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings by William James

Our judgments concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us. Where we judge a thing to be precious in consequence of the idea we frame of it, this is only because the idea is itself associated already with a feeling. If we were radically feelingless, and if ideas were only the things our minds could entertain, we should lose all our likes and dislikes at a stroke, and be unable to point to any one situation or experience in life more valuable or significant than any other.

Now the blindness in human beings, of which this discourse will treat, is the blindness with which we are all afflicted in regards to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.

We are practical beings, each of us with limited functions and duties to perform. Each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his own duties and the significance of the situations that call these forth. But this feeling in each of us is a vital secret, for sympathy with which we look vainly to others. The others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours. Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of alien lives. Hence the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to decide in an absolute way on the value of other persons' conditions or ideals.

Take our dogs and ourselves, connected as we are by a tie more intimate than most ties in this world; and yet, outside that tie of friendly fondness, how insensible, each of us, to all that makes life significant for the other! - we to the rapture of bones under hedges, or smells of trees and lamp-posts, they to the delights of literature and art. As you sit reading the most moving romance you ever fell upon, what sort of judge is your fox-terrier of your behavior? With all his good will toward you, the nature of your conduct is absolutely excluded from his comprehension. To sit there like a senseless statue, when you might be taking him to walk and throwing sticks for him to catch! What queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them like that for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life?

The African savages came nearer the truth; but they, too, missed it, when they gathered wonderlingly round one of our American travellers, who, in the interior, had just come into possession of a stray copy of the New York Commercial Advertiser, and was devouring it column by column. When he got through, they offered him a high price for the mysterious object; and, being asked for what they wanted it, they said: “For an eye medicine,” - that being the only reason they could conceive of for the protracted bath which he had given his eyes upon its surface. . .

Let me take a personal example of the kinds that befalls each one of us daily: -

Some years ago, while journeying in the mountains of North Carolina, I passed by a large number of 'coves,' as they call them there, or heads of small valleys between the hills, which had been newly cleared and planted. The impression on my mind was one of unmitigated squalor. The settler had in every case cut down the more manageable trees, and left their charred stumps standing. The larger trees he had girdled and killed, in order that their foliage should not cast a shade. He had then built a log cabin, plastering its chinks with clay, and had set up a tall zig-zag rail fence around the scene of havoc, to keep his pigs and cattle out. Finally, he had irregularly planted the intervals between the stumps and trees with Indian corn, which grew among the chips, and there he dwelt with his wife and babes – an axe, a gun, a few utensils, and some pigs and chickens feeding in the woods, being the sum total of his possessions.

The forest had been destroyed; and what had 'improved' it out of existence was hideous, a sort of ulcer, without a single element of artful grace to make up for the loss of Nature's beauty. Ugly, indeed, seemed the life of the squatter, scudding, as the sailors say, under bare poles, beginning again away back where our first ancestors started, and by hardly a single item the better off for all the achievements of the intervening generations.

Talk about going back to Nature! I said to myself, oppressed by the dreariness, as I drove by. Talk of country life for one's old age and for one's children! Never thus, with nothing but bare ground and one's bare hands to fight the battle! Never, without the best spoils of culture woven in! The beauties and commodities gained by the centuries are sacred. They are our heritage and birthright. No modern person ought to be willing to live a day in such a state of rudimentariness and denudation.

Then I said to the mountaineer who was driving me, “What sort of people are they who have to make these new clearings?” “All of us,” he replied. “Why, we ain't happy here, unless we get one of these coves under cultivation.” I instantly felt that I had been losing the whole inward significance of the situation. Because to me the clearings spoke naught but denudation, I thought that to those whose sturdy arms and obedient axes had made them they could tell no other story. But, when they looked on the hideous stumps, what they thought of was a personal victory. The chips, the girdled trees, and the vile split rails spoke of honest sweat, persistent toil and final reward. The cabin was warrant of safety for self and wife and babes. In short, the clearing, which to me was a mere ugly picture on the retina, was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very paean of duty, struggle and success.

I had been as blind to the peculiar ideality of their condition as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine, had they had a peep at my strange indoor academic ways of life at Cambridge...

And now what is the result of all these [lengthy] considerations and quotations? It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than oor own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may seem to us.

Hands off : neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations. It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Financial Sector Reform Project by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

After completing my book The Black Swan, I spent some time meditating on the fragility of systems with the illusion of stability. This convinced me that the banking system was the mother of all accidents waiting to happen. I explained in the book that the best teachers of wisdom are the eldest, because they may have picked up invisible tricks that are absent from our epistemic routines and which help them survive in a world more complex than the one we think we understand. So being old implies a higher degree of resistance to "Black Swans" (events with the following three attributes: they lie outside the realm of regular expectations; they carry an extreme impact; and human nature makes us concoct explanations for their occurrence after the fact).

Take Mother Nature, which is clearly a complex system, with webs of interdependence, non-linearities and a robust ecology (otherwise it would have blown up a long time ago). It is a very old person with an impeccable memory. Mother Nature does not develop Alz­heimer's - and there is evidence that even humans would not easily lose brain functions with age if they took long walks, avoided sugar, bread, white rice and stock-market investments, and refrained from taking economics classes or reading the New York Times.

Let me summarise my ideas of how Mother Nature deals with the Black Swan. First, she likes redundancies. Look at the human body. We have two eyes, two lungs, two kidneys, even two brains (with the possible exception of company executives) - and each has more capacity than is needed ordinarily. So redundan­cy equals insurance, and the apparent inefficiencies are associated with the costs of maintain­ing these spare parts and the energy needed to keep them around in spite of their idleness.

The exact opposite of redundancy is naive optimisation. The reason I tell people to avoid attending an (orthodox) economics class and argue that economics will fail us is the following: economics is largely based on notions of naive optimisation, mathematised (poorly) by Paul Samuelson - and these mathematics have contributed massively to the construction of an error-prone society. An economist would find it inefficient to carry two lungs and two kidneys - consider the costs involved in transporting these heavy items across the savannah. Such optimisation would, eventually, kill you, after the first accident, the first "outlier". Also, consider that if we gave Mother Nature to economists, it would dispense with individual kidneys - since we do not need them all the time, it would be more "efficient" if we sold ours and used a central kidney on a time-share basis. You could also lend your eyes at night, since you do not need them to dream.

Almost every major idea in conventional economics fails under the modification of some assumption, or what is called "perturbation", where you change one parameter or take a parameter henceforth assumed to be fixed and stable by the theory, and make it random. Take the notion of comparative advantage, supposedly discovered by David Ricardo, and which has oiled the wheels of globalisation. The idea is that countries should focus on "what they do best". So one country should specialise in wine, another in clothes, even though one of them might be better at both. But consider what would happen to the country if the price of wine fluctuated. A simple perturbation around this assumption leads one to reach the opposite conclusion to Ricardo. Mother Nature does not like overspecialisation, as it limits evolution and weakens the animals.

This explains why I found the current ideas on globalisation (such as those promoted by the journalist Thomas Friedman) too naive, and too dangerous for society - unless one takes into account the side effects. Globalisation might give the appearance of efficiency, but the operating leverage and the degrees of interaction between parts will cause small cracks in one spot to percolate through the entire system.
The debt taboo

The same idea applies to debt: it makes you very fragile under perturbations. We currently learn in business schools to engage in borrowing, against all historical traditions (all Mediterranean cultures developed over time a dogma against debt). "Felix qui nihil debet", goes the Roman proverb: "Happy is he who owes nothing." Grandmothers who survived the Great Depression would have advised doing the exact opposite of getting into debt: have several years of income in cash before any personal risk-taking. Had the banks done the same, and kept high cash reserves while taking more aggressive risks with a smaller portion of their port­folios, there would have been no crisis.

Documents dating back to the Babylonians show the ills of debt, and Near Eastern religions banned it. This tells me that one of the purposes of religious traditions has been to enforce prohibitions to protect people against their own epistemic arrogance. Why? Debt implies a strong statement about the future, and a high degree of reliance on forecasts. If you borrow $100 and invest in a project, you still owe $100 even if you fail in the project (but you do a lot better in case you succeed). So debt is dangerous if you are overconfident about the future and are Black Swan-blind - which we all tend to be. And forecasting is harmful since people (especially governments) borrow in response to a forecast (or use the forecast as a cognitive excuse to borrow). My "Scandal of Prediction" (bogus predictions that seem to be there to satisfy psychological needs) is compounded by the "Scandal of Debt": borrowing makes you more vulnerable to forecast error.

Just as Mother Nature likes redundancies, so she abhors anything that is too big. The largest land animal is the elephant, and there is a reason for that. If I went on a rampage and shot an elephant, I might be put in jail and get yelled at by my mother, but I would hardly disturb the ecology of Mother Nature. On the other hand, my point about banks in my book - that if you shot a large bank, I would "shiver at the consequences" and that "if one falls, they all fall" - was subsequently illustrated by events: one bank failure, Lehman Brothers, in September 2008, brought down the entire edifice.

The crisis of 2008 provides an illustration of the need for robustness. Over the past 2,500 years of recorded ideas, only fools and Platonists have believed in engineered utopias. We shouldn't think that we can correct mistakes and eliminate randomness from social and economic life. The challenge, rather, is to ensure that human mistakes and miscalculations remain confined, and to avoid them spreading through the system - just the way Mother Nature does it. Reducing randomness increases exposure to Black Swans.

My dream is to have a true "epistemocracy"; that is, a society robust against expert errors, forecasting errors and hubris, one that can be resistant to the incompetence of politicians, regulators, economists, central bankers, bank­ers, policy wonks and epidemiologists.Here are ten principles for a Black Swan-robust society.

What is fragile should break early while it's still small: Nothing should ever become too big to fail. Evolution in economic life helps those with the maximum amount of hidden risks become the biggest.

No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains: Whatever may need to be bailed out should be nationalised; whatever does not need a bailout should be free, small and risk-bearing. We got ourselves into the worst of capitalism and socialism. In France, in the 1980s, the Socialists took over the banks. In the US in the 2000s, the banks took over the government. This is surreal.

People who drove a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus: The economics establishment lost its legitimacy with the failure of the system in 2008. Find the smart people whose hands are clean to get us out of this mess.

Don't let someone making an "incentive" bonus manage a nuclear plant - or your financial risks: Odds are he would cut every corner on safety to show "profits" from these savings while claiming to be "conservative". Bonuses don't accommodate the hidden risks of blow-ups. It is the asymmetry of the bonus system that got us here. No incentives without disincentives.
Time to definancialise

Compensate complexity with simplicity: Complexity from globalisation and highly networked economic life needs to be countered by simplicity in financial products. Complex systems survive thanks to slack and redundancy, not debt and optimisation.

Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning label: Complex financial products need to be banned because nobody understands them, and few are rational enough to know it. We need to protect citizens from themselves, from bankers selling them "hedging" products, and from gullible regulators who listen to economic theorists.

Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence: Governments should never need to "restore confidence". Cascading rumours are a product of complex systems. Governments cannot stop the rumours. We just need to be able to shrug off rumours, to be robust to them. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains: Using leverage to cure the problems of too much leverage is not homoeopathy, it's denial. The debt crisis is not a temporary problem, it's a structural one. We need rehab.

Citizens should not depend on financial assets as a repository of value and rely on fallible "expert" advice for their retirement: Economic life should be definancialised. We should learn not to use markets as warehouses of value.

Make an omelette with the broken eggs: The crisis of 2008 was not a problem to fix with makeshift repairs. We will have to remake the system before it does so itself. Let us move voluntarily into a robust economy by helping what needs to be broken break on its own, converting debt into equity, marginalising the economics and business school establishments, banning leveraged buyouts, putting bankers where they belong, clawing back the bonuses of those who got us here and teaching people to navigate a world with fewer certainties. Then we will see an economic life closer to our biological environment: smaller firms and no leverage - a world in which entrepreneurs, not bankers, take the risks, and in which companies are born and die every day without making the news.

Extracted from the postscript to "The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Penguin, £9.99)
© Nassim Nicholas Taleb 2008 penguin.co.uk

Monday, July 12, 2010

Convergence by Mark Helprin

Teilhard de Chardin's recognizably Hermetic concept that salvation comes through the development and convergence of human capabilities with the divine is a doctrine with a dark side that he chose optimistically and faithfully to ignore, a side that Yeats ( he of balancing this life with this death) expresses with customary and disconcerting beauty:

There all the barrel-hoops are knit,
There all the serpent-tails are bit,
There all the gyres converge in one,
There all the planets drop in the Sun.

That something is very wrong with the notion of convergence in even its most elevated formulation is supported by its most eloquent critique. In “Everything That Rises Must Converge”, a simple and profound short story by Flannery O'Connor, a mother and son travel on a city bus in the newly integrated South. The mother clings to the old ways and is clearly wrong in doing so, but, in practice, she is kind and good. The son is the apostle of progress and justice, but in practice he is smug and cruel. He represents pride in achievement, faith in emerging perfection, reason, justice, the linear concept of history. She – humility, tradition, conservation, circularity, mercy, and forgiveness.

It is no coincidence that in the interplay between the two in the context of their individual struggles he finds that his actions have “assured entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.” And it isn't a coincidence that the title of the story, which Flannery O'Connor wrote to address the great French philosopher, is from Teilhard, for it is a velvet demolition of his belief that mankind can evolve to perfection.

If salvation is the function of perfectibility, what does this imply about the lame, the weak, the befuddled, and the oppressed? Are they by implication less beloved of God? In one spare short story, mortally ill Flannery O'Connor, with the Southern and the Celtic knowledge of hubris and defeat running naturally in her blood, checkmated Teilhard's great erudition, multiple volumes, and splendid dreams. This she did with the same kind of totally unexpected, breathtaking power of the Maid of Orleans, or Anne Frank. She, who would never know temporal glory, or be rewarded in this world, who died without husband or children, who suffered and had no sway, she knew the simple truth that salvation is ultimately a matter of grace. That is, when all is said and done, man is simply unable to construct the higher parts of his destiny, and must know this to survive even the simpler challenges that he is expected to meet.

At least since the Enlightenment, man has modeled himself and his society upon the machine. Slowly shorn of his knowledge of and feel for nature and human nature, he has been brought over to the principles ( and, often, the mere effects) of speed, efficiency, economy, and emotional detachment: doing the most with the least; just-in-time inventory; lack of feeling; absence of commitment; neutrality of conscience; all the techniques common to a business, an organization, a mechanical contrivance, or a modernist novel. But neither nature nor man are machines, and, treated as machines, they sicken.

Convergence is not a fact on the horizon but a contrivance of human vanity. It will not come from a hand-held toy, an electronic network no matter how powerful., or a machine that sits on a desk. It will not come by virtue of universal or near-universal agreement or by virtue of the new. Wait as long as you wish, it will not come.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Orphans of the Revolution by Harvey Sachs


Between 1789 and 1815, the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars had torn Europe apart. From the Atlantic's eastern shores all the way to Moscow, clashing ideologies had been transformed into clashing armies; the liberty-equality-fraternity banner was quickly bloodied by the revolutionaries' excesses, and its motto was then subverted by Napoleon, who used the ideal of exporting the Revolution as a tool for domination of the whole Continent. However shocking the effects of the infant French Republic's guillotine may have been, the eighteen to forty thousand chopped-off heads that it produced during the Terror of 1792-96 were a statistical trifle in comparison to the foreign wars that followed. Between 1796 and 1815, an estimated two and a half million soldiers and one million civilians met their deaths in the Napoleonic Wars. In the battle of Borodino alone, 7 September 1812, Russian and France lost far more soldiers than the United States would lose in the entire 15 years of the war in Vietnam. The revolutionary and Napoleonic War lasted twice as long as the Vietnam War, four times as long as the Second Word War, and six times as long as the First World War.

Little wonder, then, that in April 1814, when Napoleon was sent into exile on the island of Elba, an enormous sense of relief pervaded millions upon millions of Europeans, including many of those who had approved the emperor's goals or had in any case opposed the restoration of power to their countries' most reactionary forces. Entire peoples were worn out, entire nations drained, by warfare that had begun to seem eternal, and the Old World's old leaders did not fail to grasp the fact that their power, so long threatened or usurped, would soon be secure again. They arranged to meet in Vienna to decide how the “liberated” Continent was to be carve up among them. The tyranny of absolutism raised its ugly head once again.

During the period from 1815 to 1848, Europeans did not know that within a few generations freedom of speech, of the press, and of religion would be available to a significant portion of humanity. Members of Beethoven's generation witnessed the last years of the Enlightenment and then the birth, transformation, and demise of the Revolution, and members of the following generation had the still more depressing experience of witnessing only the phases of subversion and demise.

Anyone who has lived under repressive regimes in more recent times will understand the phenomena: In order to survive, you are forced to pretend to believe in something in which you do not believe and that you may, in fact detest; at the same time, you cannot help but wonder of what possible use or consequence your survival could be under such circumstances. Although the despair factor was as present in the human psyche in the early nineteenth century as it is today and as it has been throughout human history, artists who later became identified with what is called the “Romantic movement” , who lived not only before Hitler and Stalin but also before Darwin, Marx, Freud and Einstein, did not possess as vast a gamut of uncertainties – not to mention nihilistic beliefs and attitudes- as later generations would have at their disposal.. Two hundred years ago the search for absolute meaning was still a reasonable option.

Many commentators have described Romanticism as the inspiration behind Europe's striving towards freedom but that notion seems to me less sustainable than the converse: The European aspiration for freedom was the inspiration for Romanticism. The writer Marie-Henri Beyle ( Stendhal) became one of the first literary figures to perceive the relationship between the death of the Revolution and the flowering of Romanticism- Romanticism understood as a sublimation of a revolution that had first exploded across Europe, imploded upon itself, and then replaced by autocracy and repression. What Stendhal seemed to grasp earlier than anybody else is the fact that the Romantics were not the children of the Revolution, but rather its orphans.

The seething magma of protest in the German-speaking world would eventually erupt in the revolution of 1848, but through-out the 1820s and 30s it remained mostly subterranean. In three short lines, the poet August Heinrich Hoffman broadly satirized the timid, cafe-frequenting rebels of the day: “And they chatter, leaf through the gazettes, search and finally come to the conclusion: another little piece of apple pie.” No matter how intensely artists and intellectuals detested the political situation in which they found themselves- under constant surveillance by the police apparatus of the state- they could express their aversion in only the most oblique ways. Aversion led to introversion, to the concentration on intensely personal thoughts, feelings and states of being and the transformation of them into artistic expression- to Romanticism, in a word.

Beethoven was such an orphan – child of the Revolution, grandchild of the Enlightenment. His relatively liberal sympathies, love of freedom and contempt for authority were well known, though he was considered too socially eccentric and out of touch to be potentially dangerous; other were not so fortunate.

If there is a hidden thread that connects Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to the works created in and around 1824 by other significant artists, it is precisely this quest for freedom: political freedom, freedom from the repressive conditions that dominated Europe after the Congress of Vienna, and freedom of expression, certainly, but above all freedom of the mind and spirit. To a hypothetical observer who, in 1824, had heard of Beethoven, Byron, Pushkin , Heine and the other major figures who appeared in those years, the points of contact among them would have seemed tenuous, perhaps even non-existent. But from the twenty-first century perspective, the connection seems almost too obvious.

In a sense, every human being who has ever used his or her brain for non-destructive purposes counts as a brave soldier in humanity's War of Liberation, but the conjunction of Beethoven's last symphonic masterpiece with crucial works or events in the lives of so many other outstanding artists made 1924 a particularly fertile year in the history of that struggle. The fact that the Ninth Symphony, Byron's death, Pushkin's Boris Godunov and “To the Sea”, Delecroix's Massacres at Chios, Stendhal's Racine and Shakespeare, and Heine's Harz Journey and North Sea Pictures all furthered, in one way or another, Romanticism's rear-guard action against repression underlines the significance of that speck in time. And perhaps brief glances at those artists and their states of being at that moment will help to remind readers that spiritual and intellectual liberation requires endless internal warfare against everything in ourselves that narrows us down instead of opening us up and that replaces questing with certitude.

The uniquely vital expressive power of the Ninth Symphony, which is one of the most striking products of human beings' attempt to continue the struggle, as well as to deepen their individual relationships to life, is the subject of this book.

Beethoven Visits Cleveland by Harvey Sachs


When I was eleven and half and on the verge of adolescence, my parents gave me a box that would determine my future. It was gray and white, made mainly of laminated wood, and I set it on top of the chest of drawers in my bedroom. From that exalted position, it began to confer understanding and solace on me – dim understanding , at first, and only a glimmer of solace, but a hint, at least, that this dying child, this embryonic grown-up, this odd new I , might survive, proceed, and perhaps even learn to assuage from time to time the nameless, incomprehensible ache, or to fill in part of the vast pit of unintelligible sadness that had suddenly and for no apparent reason opened up in the center of life's territory.

Maybe, the box said, the ache and the pit would not be adulthood's sole offerings. Maybe something could happen, during the years that stretched forward in an unimaginably long line, to compensate for the ambiguity of existence, something to counterbalance the attractively horrible dreams, strange yearnings, and stranger physical changes that had begun to inhabit me.

The box- a portable, four-speed record player with a single speaker no larger than a grapefruit – seemed to be telling me something important about the world in a language that I felt I had always known, and I sensed that if I gave the box enough of my attention, much that was obscure would be illuminated. I was amazed that there could be such fullness in the midst of such emptiness, such solidity amid such confusion, such immutability amid such an onrush of time.

The box didn't soften or sweeten the conflicts within me. On the contrary, it highlighted them and revealed that they were still deeper and more intricate than I had suspected. But it also stated them boldly, filled me with the powerful sensuality of thought, and made me feel that one day I might at least be able to grapple with my problems instead of lying stunned at their feet. The music's ambiguous specificity spoke directly to me and forced me to respond. I “conducted it”, jumped around to it, and imagined that I was explaining it to the girl I was secretly in love with, talking to her about life and about Beethoven, who was my alpha and omega. I spent my best hours familiarizing myself with a newly discovered region: inner life.

Yes: alpha and omega. There was plenty of room for all the letters in-between, too, but my listenings generally began and ended with Beethoven...Beethoven spoke to me more clearly, more directly, than anybody else, and I often thought about him, about his existence. His music, but also the simplified yet no wholly erroneous published accounts of his life that I devoured, gave me sustenance and courage.

Never for a moment did I identify with his genius, and I probably already sensed that my fundamental gregariousness would prevent me from becoming as unbalanced in my human relationships as he had been; yet I was always a crowd shunner, and the idea of the fist-shaking Beethoven making a cry of protest, of nonacceptance, for all to hear, appealed to me overwhelmingly. The “older” Beethoven ( younger than I am now) – the Beethoven who sought transcendence – was a discovery I wasn't capable of making at so tender an age. What nourished me was the heaven-storming “Middle Period” Beethoven. He was my constant companion

I still think of him as my alpha and omega; the author of the music that transformed my existence at the onset of adulthood continues to enrich it more than any other. His music still gives me as much sensual and emotional pleasure as it gave me fifty years ago, and far more intellectual stimulation. It adds to the fullness when life feels good, and it lengthens and deepens my perspective when life seems barely tolerable. It is with me and in me. And I suppose that this book is a vastly over-sized and yet entirely inadequate thank-you note to Beethoven.

The Ninth; Beethoven and the World in 1824 by Harvey Sachs; Random House, 2010

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Fairly Flawless by Scott Selby and Greg Campbell

Leonardo Notarbartolo set the world's greatest diamond heist into motion on a cold gray autumn day in 2000 with a smile and a polite 'merci beaucoup,' as the building manager at Antwerp's Diamond Center granted him free reign of the place he planned to rob. Renting a small office several floors above the vault that contained hundreds of millions of dollars worth of diamonds, jewels, gold and hard cash didn't even require a background check, which would have instantly revealed Notarbartolo's long-standing connections to a group of Italian robbers and thieves known as the 'School of Turin”.

In other respects the Diamond Center's 24/7 surveillance and anti-theft measures were impressive. It took Leonardo 27 months of careful observation and planning to crack the security and gain entrance to the vault. Actually, getting the garage door open and picking the lock to the door from there into the Center during off-hours was a snap. Disarming the light, heat and motion detectors was just a matter of a little duct tape, hairspray and a styrofoam box. Magnetic alarms on the face of the vault were clamped together, unbolted and moved to the side. The main key to the vault was extracted from a locked-box in a nearby storeroom by means of a crowbar. No one is sure how they got the combination to the safe but it might not have been necessary because the guards who were responsible for closing it at the end of the day rarely spun its dial to reset its tumblers.

Once inside the vault Notarbartolo's team of four faced the daunting task of opening the the deposit boxes. Actually, they invented an ingenious device that hooked a probe through their keyholes and, bending their dead bolts to a 45% angle, ripped their doors open. In four hours they opened 110 of the 180 boxes in the vault. On the way out they entered the security center and removed the VHS tapes that might of identified them in the subsequent investigation.

The perfect crime? Unfortunately, disposing of the refuse of tools used in the crime and the household effects that had accumulated in their 'hideout' a few blocks from the Diamond Center was not a simple matter. The folks in Antwerp don't appreciate strangers making use of their dumpsters and keep a close watch. The thieves dumped their mess in an out-of-the-way nature reserve whose caretaker had 'a thing' about garbage dumping and discovered the thieves discarded bags the very next morning. Inside the bags, along some old coffee grounds, was a torn-up invoice which pointed directly to Mr. Notarbartolo. Several days later, completely oblivious to what the police had discovered, Leonardo returned to the Diamond Center to wrap up his affairs and was detained.

In today's prices the estimated value of the loot from this heist may be as high as $650 million. Of the four men eventually convicted of this crime Leonardo Notarbartelo- the alleged mastermind- served the longest- six years. Only a small handful of diamonds, jewels, gold and cash was ever recovered nor likely ever will be. This kind of wealth is not easy to trace and, for the most part, the 'School of Turin”, which had to fence its take at a steep discount, is careful about the way it spends its money.

Interestingly, during the course of the investigation- sorting through all the useless papers and low value jewels discarded by the thieves as they emptied the safe-deposit boxes in the vault, police found plenty of evidence of the black-market activities of many of the diamond traders who stowed their stuff at the Center. In consideration of the great personal losses suffered by many depositors and traders- insurance eventually covered only about $21 million- it was decided not to pursue any of these cases of grievous tax evasion. It is likely if not absolutely certain, that all of the diamonds lifted by the “School of Turin” have been recycled through the Diamond Center in Antwerp, 80-90% of all the diamonds in the world are. The trade itself is the largest single business monopoly on the planet and that accounts for the fabulous prices , extraordinary profits and immunity from the law it commands.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Water by Peter H. Gleick

By now most people are aware of the huge growth in the consumption of bottled water since 1976 both in the U.S.( 9 billion gallons per year in 2009) and around the world ( 45 billion), and the many problems associated with it, including the approximately 160 million barrels of oil required to make the bottles and how few of those bottles are recycled ( at best around 40% even in the eleven States that have enacted container-deposit laws- though a handful of European countries have obtained better results).

Many will have heard that in the U.S. regulations governing the testing of bottled water for contamination and content labeling are very loose, minimally applied and without any of the strict public notification and consumer warnings and recalls that apply to public water supplies. Nor have any of the rules against deceptive marketing and false advertising been exercised consistently or on a broad base against this highly lucrative product.

Some people may even be aware of the possible and sometimes already established long term negative environmental consequences- especially local- of massive withdrawal of ground water resources for commercial purposes.

In blind taste tests ( on non-mineral, non carbonated water) most subjects end up preferring municipal water (whose chlorine content can be removed quickly by taking simple measures), and chemical tests invariably show that the tap water has fewer biological or heavy metal contaminants. The author of this book, an expert in such matters, and a popular media consultant, covers all this ground quite thoroughly- and moderately- in this book.

The author concludes his lengthy report in the following manner:

All our engineered water-treatment processes that flocculate, coagulate, precipitate, condense, and distill water are mechanical imitations of the natural process. We build massive sand or charcoal or mechanical filters that mimic the purification role played by soils. We run water through reverse-osmosis membranes that imitate the way cell walls separate salts from solution. We pass water under high- intensity ultraviolet lamps that replicate the purifying effects of the sun. We grow vats of naturally occurring waste-eating bacteria that take the biological products we excrete and consume them, producing fertilizers, oxygen, and energy. We use fossil fuels to distill water in massive boilers and condensers that are concentrated mechanical reproductions of the hydrologic cycle.

All of these artificial interventions are necessary because the population of the planet has outgrown the ability of nature to provide adequate water for our needs and to purify our wastes. They have been of enormous benefit but have ultimately proved inadequate the growing need. Billions of people still suffer unnecessary water-related diseases because they lack safe water and sanitation.

Aquatic ecosystems are dying due to our use, diversion and contamination of the fresh water they need to survive. The risks of political, economic and military conflicts over water resources are growing. Climate change is already starting to alter basic hydrological conditions around the world. The technological “hard path” fixes we have so far applied seem less and less likely to solve these problems by themselves. The growing and wasteful use of bottled water is evidence that the old ways of managing water challenges are putting us on the wrong side of history.

Bottled water is a consequence of the failure of the “hard path” approach and the growing backlash against it is a symptom of the need for a new paradigm. We must do more than just “more of the same” if we are going to truly address our own and global water problems. I have called for a new “soft path” approach for the management and development of water resources.

If everyone on the planet had access to affordable safe tap water, bottled water would be seen as unnecessary. If government regulatory agencies actually worked to protect the public from poor-quality water, false advertising, misleading marketing, and blatant hucksterism, the sales of magic elixirs would be halted. If public sources of drinking water ( i.e. fountains) were more common and accessible, arguments about the convenience of bottled water would seem silly. And if bottled water companies had to incorporate the true economic and environmental costs of the reduction and disposal of plastic bottles, as well as the extraction and use of sensitive groundwater, into the price of their product, sales would plummet.

Machiavellian motives can be inferred from the dramatic expansion of bottled water in the last decade: Some claim that it is an orchestrated effort to privatize precious water resources and to turn water from a natural right into a luxury, a commercial product. Certainly, the bottled water industry is successfully capitalizing on, and profiting from, the decay of our comprehensive safe drinking water systems, or, in the poorer countries of the world, their complete absence. But motives aside, society must not abandon municipal systems, or let the rich fall back on individual point-of-use systems that purify water just for those who can afford it, or try to provide everyone with bottled water for their potable water needs.

The answer is to continue to build new and innovative water and wastewater systems, expand and maintain the remarkable systems we've already got, get the failing pipes and lead contamination out of the old building, and learn to manage water for the long-term future, not the next quarterly earnings period.

Pursuing these goals won't eliminate the bottled water industry. Consumers will always seek a diversity of choices, including the choice to buy in convenient, single-serve containers. But the bottled water industry itself is in need of serious reform and comprehensive regulation in order to safeguard human health, reduce the impacts of bottling and transporting water, and protect the public from misrepresentations and lies about unproven health benefits of bottled water.

Support and expand state-of-the -art tap water systems
Develop, pass and enforce smarter water regulations
Require truthful labeling
Protect consumers fraud and misrepresentations
Reduce bottled water's environmental impact

If we are thoughtful we will see bottled water for what it is – the result of a failure to provide satisfactory public water systems and services for everyone- and realize that our obsession with bottled water can be overcome if we address the reasons people seek it out.

The Author's Blog:

[ Maintaining and developing our water and wastewater systems both at home and abroad is exactly the sort of public works project that provided the economic stimulus and and growth that settled the huge national debt that the United States labored under in the immediate aftermath of World War II, as represented among other things by the interstate highway development program under President Eisenhower, only better, of course.

What economists call the positive “knock-on” effects of such a program are virtually incalculable- opening all kinds of opportunities for sound and environmentally sustainable economic growth and development.

The idea that the sorts of government programs and regulations envisioned by the author to achieve his goals would “unnaturally” and “dangerously” stymie the “free-market” forces that “made America great” and vouchsafes a prosperous future for all its citizens is patently absurd and, in light of all that has occurred in this country in the last thirty years leading up to the collapse of the housing bubble, the extremely slow pace of recovery, massive unemployment and the devastating oil-platform blow-out in the Gulf, defies the real record of the entire history of this Republic and verges on willful blindness if not mendacity.]

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Power of Positive Thinking by Barbara Ehrenreich

In the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, positive thoughts were flowing out into the universe in unprecedented volumes, escaping the solar system, rippling through vast bodies of interstellar gas, dodging black holes, messing with the tides of distant planets. If anyone - deity or alien being – possessed the means of translating these emanations into comprehensible form, they would have been overwhelmed by images of slimmer bodies, larger homes, quick promotions, and sudden acquisitions of great wealth.

Nothing new about this in America, beginning with Phineas Parkhurst Quimby and his most famous patient, Mary Baker Eddy. The rationale of the positive thinkers has been that the world is not, or at least no longer is, the dangerous place we imagined it to be. This is how the founder of Christian Science saw it: the Universe was “Supply” and “Abundance” made available to everyone by a benevolent deity. Sin, crime, disease, poverty - all these were “errors” wrought by minds that had fallen out of resonance with the cosmic vibration of generosity and love. A hundred years later, Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, was describing anxiety and pessimism as unhelpful vestiges of our Paleolithic past, when our ancestors scrambled to avoid predators, flood and famine. Today, however, goods and services are plentiful”, as he put it; there is enough to go around, and we can finally let our guard down. Any lingering dissatisfaction is, as Eddy would have said, a kind of error – correctable through the right self-help techniques and optimism exercises.

But has the human outlook really been improving over time? Has the universe played its assigned role as a “big mail order department” accessible to all through “the laws of attraction” as propounded by the gurus of positive thinking? For affluent individuals in peaceful settings, decidedly yes, but for most Americans things have been getting worse and the overall situation more perilous.

The poor, including those who sought spiritual leadership from prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar, remained poor and even increased in numbers. Between 2002 and 2006, as the economy grew briskly, the number of officially “low-wage” families shot up to 25% of all families with children. The traditional working class saw its wages decline and decent manufacturing jobs disappeared . The white-collar middle class – prime target for self-help books, motivational products, and coaching services- found itself subject to the same forces compression; tossed about by “income volatility”: lay-offs as well as cutbacks or elimination of pension and health benefits.

To many people who had long been denied credit on account of their race or income, the easy mortgages of the middle of the decade must have indeed come as a miracle from God - “God caused the bank to ignore your credit score and bless you with your first house” Pastor Osteen would argue. By 2006 dicey subprime and Alt-A categories of mortgages – requiring little or no income documentation or down payment- had expanded to 40% of the total. No wonder that within a year more and more Americans were finding themselves in over their heads!

But the gullibility and optimism of ordinary individuals go only so far in explaining the collapse of the housing bubble and the financial crisis. Someone was offering tricky mortgages to people of dubious means, someone was bundling up those mortgage debts and selling them as securities to investors throughout the world. In fact, the reckless optimism of the borrowers was far exceeded by that of the lenders, with some finance companies involved in subprimes undertaking debt-to-asset ratios of 30 to 1. American corporate culture had long since abandoned the dreary rationality of professional management for the emotional thrills- and quick profits- of mysticism, charisma, and sudden intuitions. Pumped up by paid motivators and divinely inspired CEOs, American business entered the midyears of the decade at a manic peak of delusional expectations, extending to the highest level of leadership. The once sober financial sector was not immune to the “virus” of positive thinking.

Furthermore, even some of the most positive-thinking evangelical pastors have recently acknowledged the threat of global warming. The notion of “peak oil” is no longer the exclusive province of a few environmentally minded kooks. Everywhere we look, the forests are falling, the deserts are advancing, the supply of animal species is declining. The seas are rising, and there are fewer and fewer fish in them to eat. But over the last couple of decades, as the icebergs sank and the levels of debt mounted, dissidents from the prevailing positive-thinking consensus were isolated, mocked, urged to overcome their perverse attachment to negative thoughts and fired. Within the U.S. any talk of intractable problems like poverty could be dismissed as a denial of America's greatness. Any complaints of economic violence could be derided as the “whining” of self-selected victims.

It is easy to see positive thinking as a uniquely American form of naivete, but it is neither uniquely American nor endearingly naive. American preachers of positive thinking would no doubt be appalled to find themselves mentioned in the same breath or even the same book as Stalinist censors and propagandists. The reality is, however, that in the Soviet Union, as in the Eastern European states and North Korea, the censors required upbeat art, books, and films, meaning upbeat heroes, plots about fulfilling production quotas, and endings promising a glorious revolutionary future. Czechoslovakian literature was suffused with “blind optimism”, North Korean short stories still beam with “relentless optimism. In the Soviet Union being charged with lack of historical optimism meant being charged with distortion of truth or transmission of false truths. Pessimism and ideological wavering meant the same thing.

In his 1968 novel, The Joke, the Czech writer Milan Kundera has a character send a postcard bearing the line “optimism is the opium of the people,” for which the character is accused of being an enemy of the people and sentenced to hard labor in the coal mines. Kundera himself was punished for daring to write The Joke. He was expelled from the Communist Party, saw his works removed from libraries and bookstores, and was banned from traveling to the West.

The big advantage of the American approach to positive thinking has been that people can be counted on to impose it on themselves. Stalinists regimes used the state apparatus – schools, secret police, and so on – to enforce optimism; capitalist democracies leave this job to the market . Yet even among American proponents of positive thinking, you can find a faint uneasiness about its role as a mental discipline, a form of self-hypnosis involving affirmations, visualizations, and tightly focused thoughts. “Don't think of 'thought control' as a repressive tool out of George Orwell's 1984”, John Templeton advised readers of one of his self-help books. “Rather, think of it as a positive force that will leave your mind clearer, more directed, and more effective.”

The great irony in all this, as a story in the January 2009 issue of Psychology Today acknowledged, the American infatuation with positive thinking has not made us happier : “as a nation we've grown sadder and more anxious during the same years that the “happiness movement”- promoted by positive psychology academics and an ever growing host self-appointed experts- has flourished; perhaps why we've so eagerly bought up its offerings.” Neither is there any evidence that positive-thinking cures disease, strengthens the immune system, prolongs life or makes us wealthy. No study has been able to convincingly separate mental attitude from circumstance and education as an independent variable for an individual's prospects in life.

Positive thinking encourages us to worry about negative expectations themselves and subject them to continual revision. It ends up imposing a mental discipline as exacting -as that of the Calvinism it replaced – the endless work of self-examination, and self-control or self hypnosis. It requires, as historian Donald Meyer puts it, “constant repetition of its spirit lifters, constant alertness against impossibility perspectives, constant monitoring of rebellions of body and mind against control.”

This is a burden that we can finally, in good conscience, put down. The effort of positive “thought control”, which is always presented as such a life preserver, has become a potentially deadly weight - obscuring judgment and shielding us from vital information. Sometimes we need to heed our fears and negative thoughts, and at all times we need to be alert to the world outside ourselves, even when that includes absorbing bad news and entertaining the views of 'negative' people. As we should have learned by now, it is dangerous not to. A vigilant realism does not foreclose the pursuit of happiness; in fact, it makes it possible. How can we expect to improve our situation without addressing the actual circumstances we find ourselves in?

It is true that subjective factors like determination are critical to survival and that individuals sometimes triumph over nightmarish levels of adversity. But mind does not automatically prevail over matter, and to ignore the role of difficult circumstances – or worse, attribute them to our own thoughts- is to slide towards the kind of depraved smugness Rhonda Byrne expressed when confronted with the tsunami of 2006. Citing the law of attraction, she stated that such disasters can happen only to people who are “on the same frequency of the event.” The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world. Build up the levees, get food to the hungry, find the cure, strengthen the 'first responders'! We will not succeed at all these things, certainly not all at once, but, if I may end with my own personal secret of happiness – we can have a good time trying.