Monday, September 23, 2013


It might be that it's always curving, but the curve is so gradual that we mostly don't notice. As a man who laid a lot of bricks in my day, it was something I noticed. A brick is a rectangular cube, with right angles for corners, and faces that are pretty much flat. None the less, one can lay up a lovely curving wall with a bunch of bricks, even my second most favorite garden demarcation, the serpentine wall, which if one cares to (I would) place in it's not exact center, but off some feet to the right, my most favorite garden demarcation, the Moon Gate. I had better be getting to this project of my dreams. Yesterday I spent the morning looking at photographs of the BSA Lightning, which still exists in a few restorations, and at prices lower than most new motorcycles. I had a BSA in 1967, a Shooting Star single. Some of the feeling of that still rattles around the ole noggin. And the sound.

Those bricks are not curved.

Nor are these.

I'm not happy being unhappy with NPR. I'm thinking it might be something they cannot help. Can an arrow change its course? There was a brief report yesterday in the late afternoon end of the weekend, concerning Mr. Obama's speech at the Navy Yard. He made the expected and utterly sensible points, that the United States now seems to "accept" gun death after gun death. Nothing changes. Our efforts to effect some small changes all die on the cutting room floor. Indeed, where small changes happened after the Newtown massacre, such as in Colorado, the gun cultists organized to get the leaders of the legislative changes removed from office forthwith, and succeeded.

After reporting on Mr. Obama's speech, and playing clips from it, the NPR report seemed compelled, like the arrow, to continue on to play clips from Wayne LaPierre's appearance on Meet the Press yesterday. Mr. LaPierre of course brought his usual array of arguments, asserting that what the Navy Yard needed was more armed guards. Mr. Gregory made some effort to argue against LaPierre's case, but the NPR report did not air much of that. Mr. LaPierre was the counterpoint to Mr. Obama. That was the structure of the story, and on the news source that, aside from hard right wingers, is generally accepted as a credible source, without much of an axe to grind.

This endless structure of balance in news is probably what poor Chuck Todd was driving at when he said that Obama had not made the case for the health care reform act, and that it wasn't the news media's job to make the case. This, I expect, is exactly how they teach journalism these days, and pretty much what news editors everywhere but Fox expect. The further fact that we also have Fox, the topsy turvy news "source," simply insures that no matter what, the overall public will be mostly frozen in amber. Is the arrow moving at all? In every photograph it seems as still as death.

It's easy to ask, why do they give Mr. LaPierre a soap box? I certainly don't understand it. At least he ought to pay for it. And with the NPR piece you can see the problem even if there is some refutation. It doesn't get reported, the refutations. If LaPierre is in the story, his views are the "balance." Against every sensible remark concerning the true problem of obscene gun proliferation in the United States is balanced LaPierre's paranoia concerning government, and his false dichotomy that if only a "good guy" were there to counter the "bad guy," these terrible things would stop happening.

The potential of a "teaching moment" is quenched. There is no spark. The factories are cranking up, the drill presses rifling, the brass casings stamped, the fine grained stocks burnished. How many of these beautiful machines fire only once? Does an operator at the press think of this, as he checks the sights or stamps the insignia into the side plate.

Take a hundred people. Introduce ten with active tuberculosis. It's almost a certainty that after a while some new cases will develop. Take a hundred people. Indroduce ten loaded weapons. It's almost a certainty that after a while a weapon is going to be discharged, and someone will find themselves with a bullet hole. It's not about good guys. People are mostly people. The other day a guy brought home a pistol. He'd just bought it. He was the nineteen year old step-father to a boy of eleven. He'd unloaded the pistol by removing the magazine. He gave it to his son to look at. The son fired the one bullet in the chamber that hadn't been cocked out, and the step father was shot dead. Where's the good guy, or the bad guy?

Who's the arrow? It might be us. Going in one direction.

...Now the bricks lay on Grand Street
Where the neon madmen climb
They all fell there so perfectly
They all seem so well timed...

Saturday I spent the day immersed in music. What a treat. My dear friend Malcolm Owen, who was a founder of the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, which invited me to join in 1970 and thus started my actual "career" as a fiddler, came down, and we executed a workshop on fiddling, fiddle tunes, and the history of the Fuzzies, to an attentive group at the Shakori Hoppin' John Old Time Festival, while the rain beat on the big top which was fortunately over all our heads. We'd all gotten interested in fiddle tunes at the inspiration of Alan Jabbour, who had shown us that each one was a particular gem, special, individual, worth acute consideration. We then spent two or three nights a week, for several years, acutely considering them, which is to say, learning how to play them accurately, to understand and execute their particular-ness as best we could. After the workshop Libby and I played a breakneck square dance, which is to say, placed some of the tunes into their larger context, made them do what they are made to do. Sunday I felt like a pitcher after a game, and considered icing down my left hand. I did take aspirin. I don't do enough fiddling to keep my body up with my mind.

I meant to tell the assembled, at the workshop, that all that microscopic focus kept Vietnam and Richard Nixon at bay, but we didn't get to that before the time ran out on us. I'd ride my Shooting Star to Tommy Thompson's Friday night jam session with my fiddle strapped to my back. BSA. That stands for Birmingham Small Arms, by the way. They manufactured the Lewis Gun, which was a significant armament in World War I. They even produced a motorcycle with a Lewis Gun mounted on it.

Further reading:


This is the Lewis Gun in action. The drawing reminds me of the style of Boy Scout illustrations when I was growing up. It probably pissed Hemmingway off, if he saw it, although he apparently reveled in the look as he healed from his shrapnel wounds at home, his mom and sis tending him through the long afternoons. Ah, romance. All the BSAs leaked oil, and the electrics were always dubious. Thus were the most beautiful motorcycles in the world eclipsed by sensible Japanese engineers who decided to split the engine casing horizontally, not vertically.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

They Don't Write 'Em Like They Use To


Meanwhile, the King of the Netherlands has declared that the welfare state is no longer possible. Seriously. Perhaps he will retire to a cheap hotel in Cleveland.

"Really," to quote Jerry Lee Lewis.

Here's Jerry Lee hissef. He's in alimony court, circa 1959, supported emotionally by his Mom and Dad.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Our Tiny Time Frame

At work a woman from Guatemala with a Mayan name comes up to the register. Her face suggests she's from somewhere in Asia. She holds a little girl who looks exactly like her. It's probably fairly likely that her distant ancestors made their way across the sunken continent that used to connect Asia with North America, a cold dry desert that blocked the warming currents from flowing into the Arctic Ocean. Over hundreds and hundreds of years her ancestors made their way south, past the ice and tundra, across the plains filled with camels and buffalo that had preceded them from Asia, finding at last a paradise of jungle and food and flowers where they could build, eventually, pyramids and write a stone calendar that seemed to predict the end of the world. She probably knows very little of this. Her concerns are with her babies.

The oceans can be understood as another universe. We venture out upon them, but we cannot live in them. At least not anymore, since we became who we are. In far far more distant time we "came" from the oceans. The oceans are the source of life on the planet. The creatures of the oceans, many of them, live generation after generation in peace and tranquility, roaming across their part of the planet, which is most of the planet. We cannot live there. It is their world. It protects them from us, and from the great cycles of time that we are barely aware of, such as the fact that every 40,000 years a clock ticks past a certain mark and the planet begins to move closer again to the sun that sustains life, all life, upon it. We are on the great track towards coolest. We were closest to the sun some 2,000 years past, and hurtle every year and decade towards the next "ice age," when the sunken continent may again emerge. Which is not to say anything at all about the works of our ingenuity which pump so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as to reverse the great cycle. For now.

Read this, then:

Oh, yes, there's that pretty disclaimer at the start. There is nothing, however, to mitigate the general fact. While our President of the tiny Moment wrings his hands at the horror in Syria, our "leaders" have, for the past century, thought it convenient to dump hundreds of tons of chemical weapons into the oceans. Out of sight, out of mind.

We laugh at babies who laugh at peek-a-boo games. Mommy really didn't disappear. Her Mayan face returns, smiling. Today the air is much cooler, and a few stray leaves have fallen on the roof, along with early acorns. There was a late fawn in the pasture at twilight.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Wheel's on Fire: More Background on the "Decision"

Surfing around the internet this morning it was easy to find some remarkable information relevant to our impending decision to attack Syria. The remarkable mincing of words by Secretary Kerry and Mr. Obama on this is almost astonishing, and a symptom of the problem a striking majority of the American people already have with the upcoming decision. Look, if we shoot missiles into Syria we are attacking Syria, i.e., making war on Syria. That's just a fact. Fifty years ago the mere fact that the Soviet Union was positioning itself to launch a missile attack on the United States by setting up missiles in Cuba came within a hairs-breath of starting a nuclear exchange with us. They hadn't fired a shot!

One of the salient references both John McCain and John Kerry are citing in their arguments for warring on Syria is an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by one Elizabeth O'Bagy:

But it turns out that Ms O'Bagy is hardly neutral: On Thursday, The Daily Caller examined O'Bagy's role as political director for the Syria Emergency Task Force, a group that has lobbied the White House and Congress to support the rebels. O'Bagy told The Daily Caller that she is not a salaried employee, but serves as a paid contractor. (From Digby)

Andrew Bacevich, in a conversation with Phil Donahue on the Bill Moyers show, makes some striking points:

It is indeed mere common sense to note, at this point, thirty years down the line from what Bacevich calls the Carter Doctrine, that overall our military intrusions in the Middle East have not lead in the direction of peace and stability, but quite the opposite. For all our exceptionalism, which has become apparently a foundational pillar of all that we do as a country, we can't even affect the desired outcome in a relatively peaceful overthrow of a military dictator in Egypt. Perhaps we must finally admit that American Exceptionalism is a self-serving myth, better demolished than lived by.

And if we continue down the path, Marcy Wheeler bothers to engage her first rate intelligence and explore some real politic consequences, particularly should Mr. Obama choose to go it alone, without allies and without even Congressional backing:

We like to pretend that each news story is a discrete thing. Today we have the chemical weapons event in Syria. Yesterday there was the boring but successful diplomatic effort to create significant sanctions on the oil exports of Iran, with the aim of mitigating their efforts to create a nuclear weapon. A coupla months back it was the sequester, now long forgotten, but in fact having major effects on our military readiness to respond to something unexpected. But:

...going to war in Syria without any sanction from the UN effectively tells the international community to fuck off. And there are a lot of countries — most notably China and India — that would welcome an excuse to start importing a lot more oil from Iran; if oil prices continue to rise, that urge will only become stronger. If the US is busy conducting unilateral action against Syria, what would prevent a bunch of countries from ending their adherence to our sanctions?

Judging by the actions of my local gas stations here in small town North Carolina, tensions with Syria are already causing fuel distributors to raise prices as a hedge. No doubt fuel futures are on the upswing as well. In the real world, which is measured by such indicators as fuel futures, all these discrete stories are quite entangled. As Ms Wheeler concludes:

We don’t know what Iran and Russia plan to do here. One thing we do know, though: they’re both shrewder than the people who caught themselves in this red line trap. That ought to raise more alarm about going forward.

(By the way, you might want to drop a dime on Ms Wheeler's blog, Day in day out she and her cohorts do extraordinary, highly detailed analysis. While they're most obviously not in it for the money, but for the truth of it, I'm sure a contribution would be helpful to their efforts.)

And if you want some more, here's one of many excellent comments from Mr. Pierce, as this "story" unfolded:

I thought, when Mr. Bush drummed up the war response to the shock of the 9/11 attack, well I guess he didn't learn a thing from Vietnam. Nope. So we watched it all unfold again, including Mr. Obama, who was a child when Vietnam went down, and Mr. Kerry, who tossed his medals over the White House fence in utter disgust. My generation sat in murky rooms filled with broken furniture, stoned to the gills, and listened to "Wheel's On Fire" over and over again on a portable phonograph. The alternative was ending up a name on a wall, or a guy sleeping on a mattress on the sidewalk, arm around his only friend, a grizzled German Shepard. Finally Mr. Nixon flew away in his chopper, and after the farewell party was over Reagan was elected. The damn thing was set on repeat.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Picking Sides Means You're In the Game

From the Washington Times yesterday:

A Syrian opposition coalition on Thursday condemned a video that purportedly shows rebels executing seven soldiers loyal to President Bashar Assad.

The video, obtained by The New York Times, shows armed fighters believed to be members of the rebel group Jund al-Sham standing over seven shirtless men kneeling face-down before them. The men then are shot in the head. The hands of five victims are tied behind their bare backs, which show signs of torture.

This response reported in the Washington Times is to the widespread publication of this video:

Last night Chris Hayes aired an exceptionally good interview with Secretary of State Kerry, who made the administration's argument, that the point of sending missiles into Syria is to enforce a world sanction on chemical weapons. Later, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson told Hayes that the reason there is a moderately successful world ban on chemical weapons is primarily because the weapons don't work very well. He speaks as a career military man, as the long-time lieutenant to General Colin Powell, as a tenured professor of military history at William and Mary.

Prognosticators at the moment (Friday morning) suggest that it is unlikely that Congress will approve the administration's course of action in Syria. Mr. Rumsfeld said yesterday that "our so-called leader" isn't leading.

Let us hope that if Congress does manage to reject Mr. Obama's suggestions, Mr. Obama will accept that judgment and renew efforts at bringing all parties to the table. There is no answer other than negotiation.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Primates Muddling Through

Digby pasted the following yesterday, from the Atlantic article by James Fallows:

Syria has been convulsed by civil war since climate change came to Syria with a vengeance. Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011. Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new well. But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it.

In some areas, all agriculture ceased. In others crop failures reached 75%. And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger. Hundreds of thousands of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies. Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3 million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”

Heard anything about this in your usual news reporting of Syria? I hadn't.

The case for our deeper intrusion into this fresh new middle-eastern tragedy (as opposed to the old, stale tragedies of Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, etc.) seems to be that if we don't make some kind of "statement" re Assad's use of chemical weapons, other countries will think they can use them too.


Seems to me Mr. Obama has an opportunity, since after all he's done with being a politician, to step out of this box and get real. Instead, he's chosen to make an abstract point and reinforce the long-broken advice and consent feature of our legislative branch, when it comes to killing foreign humans. That's probably a good thing, given the long history of non-war wars we've been waging--except for the fact that our legislative branch is now significantly taken over by seriously stupid, racist neo-fascists who in any context other than an Obama Presidency are very much for a fully militarized foreign policy. Tossing these people some power, even if it is the constitutional thing to do. I don't know.

Meanwhile, the fact remains that Syria is a raging multi-faceted civil war, and Mr. Obama is getting barked out of the tree.

Charlie Pierce makes some good points over on his blog. As usual. Shiela O'Malley commemorates the start of the Second World War with a long essay on the invasion of Poland in 1939. If you want to see a movie with the perfect moment of German exceptionalism, you couldn't do better than The Young Lions, the scene with Maxmillian Schell and Marlon Brando standing in Paris after their successful invasion is complete. Then watch Army of Shadows, dwelling on the necessary assassination of Simon Signoret.

You might read this too:

Fall's on the way here. The biting insects are in a frenzy, but it's very pretty through the window. Thus doth the micro mirror the macro.


Update from Juan Cole:

By striking Syria, Obama has all but guaranteed that a negotiated solution becomes impossible for years to come. In the absence of serious negotiations, the civil war will continue and likely get worse. The US should give serious thought to what the likely actual (as opposed to ideal) reaction in Syria will be to the landing of a few cruise missiles. The anti-regime elements will celebrate, convinced that it will all be over quickly if the US gets involved. The last thing they will want will be to negotiate with the regime.