Everybody got this broken feeling, 21

22 01 2016

This is a piece about the not-so-curiously skewed understanding of security which marks our political discourse:

When you cannot be bothered to ensure that the sick can access health care, people die. When you cannot be bothered to stop corporations from polluting the earth, people die. When you cannot be bothered to monitor workplaces for the hazardous practices under which their employees operate, people die. When you cannot be bothered to protect citizens from a law enforcement apparatus charged with protecting them, people die.

But we rarely hear about these aspects of keeping Americans safe until a crisis like Flint emerges. The ongoing notion of safety in politics, absent something headline-grabbing like poisoning an entire city, is relegated to the foreign-policy sphere. And playing up threats from abroad, often of dubious relevance, numbs the nation to the numerous other ways in which Americans are put in peril every day. And of course, there are fewer special interests clamoring to protect water supplies and workplaces than there are defense contractors wanting to go to war against a foreign threat.

To which I can only say: hear! hear!

But it also points to the necessity of functional government, and of the taxes needed to sustain that government.

As such, whatever good Bill Gates, et. al., may or may not be accomplishing, that NGOs are stepping in to provide services like vaccination or education only points to the failure of government, be it due to corruption, war, or lack of resources.

I’m not necessarily opposed to such philanthropy in a misguided heighten-the-contradictions! way—the need for clean water or mosquito netting is an immediate one, and without them, as David Dayen noted above, people die—but the private provisioning of public services certainly does take pressure off of incompetent government.

It’s also worth pointing out that foundations such as Gates’s are possible because people are able amass incredible fortunes and, in the US, pay relatively low taxes.

To the chase: is Bill Gates responsible for poisoned water in Flint? No.

And yes, insofar as he has profited from a system which tells people that acclaim in one’s field and small fortunes are not enough, but that freedom if only possible if millionaires are allowed to become billionaires and that massive corporations require the protections of government which are disdained when offered to the poor.

We in the United States live in an incredibly wealthy society, more than able to pay for competent government; that our government is, as in Flint or Ferguson, so often is not reflects the dysfunctions within the polity itself—and one of the chief sources of that dysfunction is our unwillingness/inability to say Enough! to those who have way, way more than enough.

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We leave the door of Destiny ajar

14 12 2015

Superficially, one might see the resemblances between Weimar and the US:

  • the concern, even hysteria, over supposedly inhuman enemies
  • polarization in society
  • economic insecurity
  • sense of wounded nationalism
  • dizzying movements within the culture
  • distrust of government
  • violence

But even more apparent is the crucial difference between the two:

  • the acceptance of Constitution itself

This is crucial because, in Weimar, large portions of the polity never accepted the constitution, never accepted the republic.

Part of this was due to, as I mentioned, the post-abdication government’s acceptance of the Armistice, and of the signing of the hated Treaty of Versailles: the German public couldn’t believe it had lost, and considered the harsh terms of the Treaty unjust. That the loss of territory, control over industrial regions, and, of course, reparations, made economic recovery difficult only heightened the skepticism toward a government which had apparently allowed all of this to happen.

Not everyone felt this way, of course. While liberal parties never managed to hold a majority in the Reichstag after 1920, the Social Democrats, the German Democratic Party, and the Catholic Center Party did hold significant chunks of parliament throughout this period, with various liberals holding the chancellorship as well.

But even had the Constitution been configured differently—the chancellor was appointed by an elected president, he was not simply the leader of the majority party or majority coalition in the Reichstag—it’s difficult to see how the republic could have overcome the irreconcilable differences in the polity itself.

Germany was divided between the reactionaries (those who wanted to restore the monarchy), the conservatives (ranging from nationalist-bourgeoisie to militarists), and liberals (social democrats, liberal-bourgeoisie); tucked in amongst these were Catholic interests, which tended toward conservatism (fear and loathing of the left) but which also appreciated the chance to participate in governance; the Communists, which by the 1920s subordinated themselves to Moscow; and various fascist groups, which had almost no role in government but which fought and killed in the streets throughout the decade.

Finally, after 1925 and with the election of Hindenburg, the republic’s president was a man who loathed the republic.

But it wasn’t just the politicians and the parties (many of which had paramilitary arms which regularly engaged in violence), but the institutions of the state itself were cool to the republic. The civil service was thoroughly conservative, as was the judiciary as well as the army. Bureaucrats, judges, and military officials rarely attacked the republic directly, but they never accepted it as legitimate; in the case of the judiciary, they would often sympathize with rightists who were brought before the bench, and raising a “patriotic” defense was often the ticket to either acquittal or a lenient sentence.

So, for example, none of the surviving conspirators in the assassination of Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau served more than five years, and only one of the conspirators involved in the Kapp putsch served any time at all.

And, most famously, the man at the head of the beer-hall putsch in Munich, one Austrian corporal named Adolph Hitler (he didn’t become a German citizen until 1932), not only wasn’t deported, he was given free rein to speechify in court, and given only a five-year sentence in ‘fortress incarceration’—of which he served only a year.

The US polity is at least somewhat polarized (there is some controversy as to how much), but one touchstone for pretty much everyone is the Constitution: everybody who is anybody says they love it.

We don’t all love it the same way, of course, but does anyone think that the assassination of the Secretary State would lead to a sentence of less than 10 years? That the attempted armed overthrow of a state government (with the announced intention to overthrow the federal government) by a non-citizen would lead to prison term of merely 5 years? and that he’d be out after a year? and not deported?

In fact, for as violent a society as the US is, our violence is, largely, non-political. This hardly makes it benign (especially when perpetrated by officials of the state, i.e., the police), but neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have paramilitary wings and their members tend not to participate in assassination attempts of political figures.

Furthermore, when someone is killed for political reasons—say, a doctor who performs abortions—most political leaders will distance themselves from the act itself (even if they do express sympathy for the motive). Just as if not more importantly, prosecutors, juries, and judges tend not to wave away such murders.

In other words, whatever the problems with our republic, most citizens, most elected officials, and most of the members filling the institutions of government, nonetheless accept the structure of the government.

I am very critical of elected officials (say, some Republicans) who suggest that other elected officials (say, some Democrats) are illegitimate, in no small part because attacks on the existence of the opposition in government is an attack on the legitimacy of the government itself—a dangerous proposition for any member of government to take. But even with Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” and the birther conspiracies and Mike Huckabee’s intimations that the president is some kind of traitor  (Jesus FUCK, Huckabee!), I have no doubt that any attempt on the life of the president, members of his Cabinet, or of anyone running for president would be met by near-universal condemnation.

(Yeah, near-universal: there will always be those who celebrate assassination, and some of the public condemners might be private celebrators, but it would be understood by all that public glee at the murder of a public official punches one’s ticket to the fringe.)

Which is to say, as much as folks may dislike the government, it’s probably not going too far to say they’d dislike the violent overthrow of that government even more.

To be continued.





Give me the gun

4 08 2013

Yet another article about yet another shitty government official and in the comments, the usual:

Yeah, we should totally give up our guns to these tyrants!

Okay, yeah, comments (often a cesspool, not representative, blah blah), but this sentiment is so commonly expressed in the comments that someone less obsessed with gun regs/rights (take yer pick) is likely simply to skip past them.

I, for example, usually skip past.

But today a new thought hit: Guns are a simple answer to a tough problem.

I’m a good-government type of gal, but any leftist who isn’t at least skeptical of governmental power isn’t doing it right. I like big, messy, pluralist, complicated societies, and the only way to live well in a big, messy, pluralist, complicated societies is to establish some kind of rule of law to navigate those messes and complications.  And if that law is to have a chance at approaching justice, good government is required.

But it’s also manifestly the case that government isn’t always good, that law falls short of justice, and sometimes you really do have to defend yourself by any means necessary.

Thus, while it’s easy for me to roll my eyes at so-called gun-nuts, there is some small part of me that gets some small part of their agenda. There’s a lot I don’t get and a lot I don’t agree with, but the notion that the government is not always to be trusted. . . ?

Anyway, trying to wrest good government out of bad is hard, hard work, rarely straightforward, and almost always takes too long. And even if you think you’ll fail, you have to believe enough in the worth of good government to try.

Not everyone believes this, of course, which is why some prefer the quick recourse to weaponry. But there may be others who are driven less by animus against the government (or the big messy society which requires it) than a frustration that the Right and the Good are just so goddamned obvious and just as goddamned obviously never to be achieved by standard operating procedures, that the best way to the Right and the Good is to blow a hole through those SOPs.

Thus, the gun: It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s done.

~~~

h/t: Brad DeLong





Every move you make

1 08 2013

Move along, people, nothing to see here.

Yeaaaah, not so much:

Because who wasn’t reading those stories [about the Boston bombing]? Who wasn’t clicking those links? But my son’s reading habits combined with my search for a pressure cooker and my husband’s search for a backpack set off an alarm of sorts at the joint terrorism task force headquarters.

[snip]

What happened was this: At about 9:00 am, my husband, who happened to be home yesterday, was sitting in the living room with our two dogs when he heard a couple of cars pull up outside. He looked out the window and saw three black SUVs in front of our house; two at the curb in front and one pulled up behind my husband’s Jeep in the driveway, as if to block him from leaving.

Six gentleman in casual clothes emerged from the vehicles and spread out as they walked toward the house, two toward the backyard on one side, two on the other side, two toward the front door.

A million things went through my husband’s head. None of which were right. He walked outside and the men greeted him by flashing badges. He could see they all had guns holstered in their waistbands.

“Are you [name redacted]?” one asked while glancing at a clipboard. He affirmed that was indeed him, and was asked if they could come in. Sure, he said.

They asked if they could search the house, though it turned out to be just a cursory search.

[snip]

Meanwhile, they were peppering my husband with questions. Where is he  from? Where are his parents from? They asked about me, where was I, where do I work, where do my parents live. Do you have any bombs, they asked. Do you own a pressure cooker? My husband said no, but we have a rice cooker. Can you make a bomb with that? My husband said no, my wife uses it to make quinoa. What the hell is quinoa, they asked.

They searched the backyard. They walked around the garage, as much as one could walk around a garage strewn with yardworking equipment and various junk. They went back in the house and asked more questions.

[snip]

They mentioned that they do this about 100 times a week. And that 99 of those visits turn out to be nothing. I don’t know what happens on the other 1% of visits and I’m not sure I want to know what my neighbors are up to.

45 minutes later, they shook my husband’s hand and left.

[snip]

All I know is if I’m going to buy a pressure cooker in the near future, I’m not doing it online.

I’m scared. And not of the right things.

Hey, if Michele Catalano, her husband and son weren’t doing anything wrong, well, then, no harm, no foul, right?

Right?

~~~

h/t Melissa Jeltsen, HuffPo;  *Update* on the men-in-black, see this piece by Philip Bump of the Atlantic Wire (tip to Sullivan’s Daily Dish on Bump bit)





Every man, every man for himself

16 12 2010

I grew up with nuclear dreams.

Nightmares, actually: Watching as the bombs rained down, fleeing from bombs, living after the bombs fell, wondering how long before we were all gone.

I know that in real life that ‘bombs’ are unlikely—in most places, a single bomb would be enough—but these were nightmares, not journal articles. In real life, I studied nuclear history, nuclear weapons, nuclear tactics. I learned about throw-weights and multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) and ICBMs and SLBMs, tactical ‘backpack’ nukes, yields, and blast radii. I was drawn and horrified, thrilled and terrified at the technologies and policies that could end it all.

I was also convinced that any attempt to survive nuclear war was foolish, a waste of money, and, most damningly, likely to lower the threshold of MADness. Since deterrence was found in this balance of terror, any attempt to diminish that terror with songs of survivability was, itself, mad.

As regards all-out nuclear war, I think that assessment holds.

But what of smaller-scale nuclear war, of terrorist tactical nukes? The world won’t end if one or two or three bombs are exploded (see: the world after the Trinity test, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the numerous test explosions since 1945), so why not try to increase survivability?

Somewhat to my surprise, then, I am not opposed to federal guides on how to live after a nuclear explosion.

The New York Times notes that the Obama administration, following steps taken by the Bush administration, is distributing information on how to survive a nuclear bomb. This information is based on models which, unexpectedly, showed that casualties could be greatly reduced simply by taking shelter immediately after the blast, thereby reducing exposure to radioactive fallout.

Physicist Brooke Buddemeier spoke at a recent conference:

If people in Los Angeles a mile or more from ground zero of an attack took no shelter, Mr. Buddemeier said, there would be 285,000 casualties from fallout in that region.

Taking shelter in a place with minimal protection, like a car, would cut that figure to 125,000 deaths or injuries, he said. A shallow basement would further reduce it to 45,000 casualties. And the core of a big office building or an underground garage would provide the best shelter of all.

“We’d have no significant exposures,” Mr. Buddemeier told the conference, and thus virtually no casualties from fallout.

This is not nothing.

Government at all levels in the US is unreliable: it may come through in prevention before and care after, but, then again, maybe not. And, as these guides note, even a fully enabled government may not be able to respond immediately after.

For better and for worse, the government is telling us, we’re on our own. For better and for worse, we have to take care of ourselves.





(Mostly) No comment

1 05 2010

Virginia Attorney General Covers Up Breast On State’s Seal

Virginia Seal

So THAT’S what’s been causing all those earthquakes. . . .

h/t: Huffington Post