Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Book Review: VILLAINS, SCOUNDRELS, AND ROGUES

I was kind of disappointed in Paul Martin's Villains, Scoundrels, and Rogues. I was expecting some sort of consistency, for one thing--but instead, mass murderers are included with hucksters and slave traders, politicians with skinflints, with no real defining structure. What is in here is somewhat interesting, but it's hard to talk about a book where the average chapter is a five or six page thumbnail without listing everyone the book talks about--and to be honest, I hadn't heard of most of the people in this book, so it would mean nothing to the reader if I did so. It was an interesting little diversion, to be sure, the kind of book that's perfect to take on a plane trip or if you're stuck in a waiting room all day. But it's like eating a light snack; you'll be hungry again without a few hours of putting it down.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ferguson's Still There

The national media spent about a week in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown, but has since moved on to other, more immediate concerns. I suppose that is the nature of the news business; the rest of the world has not stood still, and there are not riots and marches happening every night like there were a month ago. But that doesn't mean that the issue has gone dormant, or that everything is back to "normal," whatever that may be.
Ferguson is a sickening, on-going reminder that racism is alive and virulent in American society. This isn't news to me, but then I spend, between my job and being part of a small society I belong to, much more time around African-Americans than most people do. What has surprised me is how many people (white people, needless to say) who appear to have truly believed that race was no longer a major factor in American life. I was talking with a guy yesterday that I've known my entire life yesterday. This guy is a professional, has had a lot of contact with the poorer sides of society over the course of his career, and is reasonably intelligent and sensitive to community needs. And he passed a remark to the effect that he "can't believe" that racism is still such a large part of American life. He was serious; he really thought that since it's been sixty years since Brown vs. Board of Education, and fifty years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, that the country and the population in it have had more than enough time for attitudes to change and for institutional and societal racism to "disappear forever."
He is a lawyer, and I suppose he can be excused, to a degree, for his myopia, assuming that everyone views the letter of the law with the same veneration and respect that he does. But few if any people allow what is legal to deeply affect what is held in their hearts, and what is the American heart and soul has been present, in one form or another, since the beginning of time: the tendency of one group of human beings to find reasons to treat other groups of human beings shabbily or worse. American racism has its roots in human tribalism, in the clan structure that is probably a carryover from the distant times when packs of homo sapiens were competing with Neanderthals and other now-extinct subspecies of hominids for land and food. The best way to tell ally from competitor in those long-ago times was noticing the physical differences, and in some ways the tendency human beings have always exhibited to focus on the differences between different groups rather than our similarities are rooted in the very distant past, in those Darwinian struggles...Ultimately, legal systems exist to provide a counterbalance to the human heart; they are a tool in the never-ending battle between intellect and emotion. Because left to their own devices, if emotions and "heart" are given primacy and are the basis for human decision-making, we will act on the basis of our fears and our innate desire to make sure that it is our gene pool that gets to reproduce. That's Biology 101; human beings are, when all the outer layers are stripped away, just another animal.
We obviously don't act like wild animals all the time, and more to the point, we have evolved to the point where we always pay lip service to higher standards, and in almost all cases, we make some attempt to live up to those ideals. But some of us try a lot harder than others, and get further than others do in their progress to transcend their basic nature. And human beings are what they are; those that fall short tend to make all sorts of excuses why they do. The reaction to what happened in Ferguson has not been edifying in many quarters. The comment/troll section of most media outlets revealed just how emotionally and intellectually deformed many people are; some of these clowns seemed like grotesque parodies of people, voicing sentiments that seem lifted from the diary of some Mississippi resident of the 1850's. It's easy to dismiss those people as nitwits and nutjobs, but there sure seem to be a disturbing number of them around; it's certain that only a small percentage of them are misanthropes that work at a dead-end job during the day and go home to their mother's basement at night. And it's the ones that clearly are not stereotypical losers that worry me.
And there's one reaction, one point of view, that I've heard several times that makes me despair, that makes me believe that there will never be any substantial improvement in race relations here. I heard people in the media say this, and I also heard four or five people in this community voice a variant of these argument, too, one that is so intellectually indefensible that one wonders how they can say it with a straight face. All of them referred to the events in Ferguson as something that the media made too much of, and pointed out, as their intellectual trump card, that rates of black-on-black violent crime are higher than rates of white-on-black violent crime but "no one ever talks about that. You don't see CNN reporters talking about that, or people marching in the streets about that."
This is a classic example of setting up a straw man to defend the indefensible. The outrage, the problem, the issue, whatever you want to call it, in the Michael Brown shooting was not primarily that the cop that shot him was white. The problems were that the cop was a white police officer, that Brown had done nothing that would justify getting shot at, and that by all accounts Brown had his hands in the air when he was shot with the secondary bullets that killed him, including at least one when he was already on the ground bleeding out. This was not a random crime that resulted in the chance encounter of two individuals. This was an interaction between the forces of law and order, of authority that we, as a society, give access and ability to potentially use deadly force in the service of protecting us from anarchy, and the community--and the problem is that that authority grossly broke the terms of that contract, and all over the nation, time and again, breaks that contract over the head of one group of this society far, far more often than it does other segments of this society. That's the issue. The issue is not so much that deadly force was used against a black teen. If Michael Brown had been armed, if he had been actively resisting or confronting the police, than the media wouldn't be present and there would be little if any community outrage. The only relevant facts here were that Michael Brown was unarmed and not acting in a dangerous fashion; that he was killed anyway; and that this sort of thing happens to black people at the hands of white authority far more often that it happens to people of other races and colors. To attempt to justify it by pointing out that gang violence and street crime happen, too, is irrelevant, a complete and total dodge of responsibility and a glaring, searing example of cognitive dissonance at worst.
Or to call it what it is, a lame and reprehensible justification for deeply held racist beliefs that can no longer be openly expressed. The racism has been present for so long and is so deeply ingrained in this country, and has expressed itself so openly and with such deadly and inhuman results, that there is a deep and not-usually-expressed fear in play here. It is not fear of blacks as such--it is the fear that there is a price to be paid for what has happened in the past, and that the current generation is the one that is going to have to pay it. The expressions of racism today that are still permeating our society at least in part reflect the very deep fear that there is going to be a day of reckoning for all the injustices perpetrated over the centuries, and the not-unnatural desire to not be the ones that face it.
The problem is that the few advances in race relations in the last generation or two have been like pouring cold water into a pot that has been simmering and boiling on the stove. The coming explosion has been delayed, yes--but only delayed. The only way to prevent the boiling over is to turn down the heat, and there is no sign, no indication, that that is ever going to happen here. And it's going to be some mess when the pot finally gets full enough that pouring more water in has no effect.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Book Review: THE FURIES

The Furies has a very interesting premise: what if there is a genetic mutation that allows people to live for hundreds of years without aging? Mark Alpert takes that idea and runs with it, positing that the stories and periodic massacres of witches throughout history are the result of a single family of women possessing a gene that allows repair of cells so that they age very, very slowly--and also of males in the family being sterile, which necessitates bringing in outside males for propagation. The plot here is rather ingenious; modern research and genetics has reached its way into this secret society and caused a rebellion among the male members of the family, who want the gene mutation made available to them. The plot loses steam in the second half of the book, as the outsider that is the male protagonist of the story begins to resemble one of the these takes-a-beating-with-no-lasting-effects secret agents that dominate the suspense genre these days, and both sides in the internecine struggle are revealed to have connections reminiscent of a paranoid conspiracy theory. The promise of the first half of the book bogs down in total implausibility at the end, which leaves a huge sense of disappointment for the reader as the book ties up its loose ends. Still... there are worse ways to spend an evening than reading a book like this.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Book Review: PETER PAN MUST DIE

I've been on a roll with whodunits recently, reading several that held my interest from the first page to the last. But John Verdon's Peter Pan Must Die is the best one I've read this year, and in quite a number of years. A small factor is that the book is set in the Catskills, and a lot of the localities are either real or familiar enough so that I have an idea of what town is meant. The two main characters are two retired cops; one drags the other into a case where he is convinced that a rich woman was wrongly convicted of murdering her rich husband. It doesn't take long to figure out that the conviction was wrong, and the first half of the book centers around the tension between the two men--one knows he has enough to have the woman sprung on appeal, while the other wants to find out who actually committed the crime.
And once the decision is made to find out what really happened, the action picks up speed like a Ferris wheel starting to turn. It becomes clear that, rather than a crime of passion, the murder was a professional job, given to perhaps the most psychopathic contract killer in the world, whose pseudonym is Peter Pan (hence the title of the book). And as the pursuit of Pan progresses, so does the instability of the cop that handled the original investigation that wrongly convicted the woman. As the net tightens, and it becomes clear that the killer has snapped and a whole lot of people are going to die, the race to find him and neutralize him goes critical. The climactic scene is taut and tense (and honestly, is going to make a great scene should this ever make it to film; it is worthy of a good Hitchcock movie), and while the killer is stopped before he kills the investigator, a lot of other people are not so lucky. And the very end of the book, where the actual perpetrator of the original murder is pieced together, was fantastic. I read a lot of these books, and I never saw this one coming, but it is perfectly logical and a re-reading of the book would likely make it obvious.
The only down note, I suppose, is that in the author's note at the end, I found out that this book is part of a series about one of the ex-cops, and I really am beginning to dislike the trend in publishing these days of serial storytelling--it seems like nothing else gets published these days. But this book is so well constructed and so gripping that I am going to have to track down the earlier books. I've had few sedentary pleasures like reading this book provided in the last couple of days (it's also nearly 450 pages, considerably longer than most whodunits).

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Biggest Jerk In Politics

We had a primary here in New York this week, in which Governor Andrew Cuomo, nominally of the Democratic Party, won that party's nomination for governor and his hand-packed running mate was chosen for lieutenant (that is the hardest word in the English language to spell) governor. In a year when it is entirely possible that both houses of Congress will be controlled by Republicans, with all the attendant nonsense that is going to bring, one would think that an unabashed liberal (I have very mixed feelings about the word "progressive;" there should be nothing wrong with being liberal, especially since being "conservative" in this country means you are usually ignorant at best and a Fascist asshole at worst) would be happy that a Democrat is likely to be governor in his state for the next four years.
Think again. Cuomo is the worst human being, bar none, holding major elective office in the United States today. Not necessarily policy-wise or in the views that he holds, although I disagree with far  more of those than I should with someone of my own party. But as a person, there is no more arrogant, self-serving person in office, and his sense of (undeserved) entitlement is truly historic, something that hasn't been seen since people were taking "divine right of kings" seriously. This is someone who took a helicopter to high school when he was younger (his father was a three-term governor of this state). This is someone that held a cabinet position in the Clinton Administration when he was 28 years old, largely because he had married a Kennedy the year before, and Clinton was trying to settle political debts arising from some questionable policies of his own and to have his back watched during the Lewinsky affair. He tried to run for governor in 2002 and got his head handed to him. This is someone that was handed the state attorney general's position even though he has shown absolutely no legal acumen in his life, never once trying a case in court after getting a law degree. He benefited from Elliot Spitzer's implosion and was elected governor in a landslide in 2010.
Even before his election, the historic hubris we were going to get treated to was already on display. Cuomo is divorced from the Kennedy scion (as soon as it was no longer politically expedient to be married to her, needless to say) and now has lived with another woman for nearly a decade. Not so unusual in his generation, and not an issue for me. Except that Cuomo makes a show of attending Mass every week, and takes Communion every week, even though divorced Catholics are still not supposed to take Communion. Whether this ought to be the case is immaterial; it's still Catholic canon law. And when Cuomo was questioned about it, he basically said he didn't care what the church thought, he was going to do what he wanted to do.
Which is Andrew Cuomo in a nutshell; there is a reason he is habitually referred to in this blog as the Spoiled Little Bastard. Cuomo thinks he is entitled to be President of the United States some day, simply because he was born into the corridors of power. He has not been notably successful at any office he's held. He was a disaster when he was HUD secretary; he was one of the secret villains of the subprime loan crisis because he vigorously prodded Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to loosen their lending guidelines during his tenure. He also showed an obsession with his own and HUD's image, and in a scenario that has become very familiar, he went nuclear on anyone that disagreed with him or thwarted his ideas. He was a disaster as Attorney General; he did nothing that did not position him as a candidate for higher office. He didn't prosecute any financial institutions for wrongdoing, even though he was in the office during the crash of 2008. He banned three Internet servers, though, from operation because of alleged links to child pornography.
After becoming governor, his record is, simply, appalling. He has been more conservative than the Tea Party on some issues, going so far as to encourage some state senators to switch parties to allow Republicans to maintain control of the Senate. He has gutted many of the social service programs that made New York one of the better places to live in this country if you're not rich and white. He fucked over the public employees union while cutting taxes on the rich. He spent $140 million of the federal money for Hurricane Sandy relief on TV ads touting what a great job he was doing with hurricane relief. He rammed through a horribly constructed gun control act in the wake of the Newtown massacre that even someone as anti-gun as me thinks is a sham. And he chose a dimwitted Tea Party wannabe as his lieutenant governor, someone that is somehow Democrat but completely out of touch with Democratic values.
And his arrogance continues unchecked, as does his abuse of power and vindictiveness. He made a big deal out of appointing a commission to investigate corruption in the New York State government--then shut it down when it began to discover that the governor's office was responsible for some serious financial irregularities. He has become surly with the press, and is hardly bothering to disguise his desire to position himself for 2016 and the Presidential run, even though Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren would both destroy him in any primary election. He barely won 60% in the primary; I am far from the only Democrat in this state that is thoroughly disgusted with him and his use of elective office as a means to indulge his ego.
So much so, that I am going to do the unthinkable in November, should I actually vote (more on that in a minute). The Republican candidate is some Tea Party nitwit, and I may just fill in his circle in November. Cuomo is that bad. But I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that the Carlin Solution is necessary. The Carlin Solution is what George Carlin, when he was alive, seriously advocated doing: registering our distaste for the awful "choices" we are presented by our political system by boycotting the voting booth. I can count the number of candidates for elective office that I have actually been enthused about on one hand in nearly 35 years of being eligible to vote. And by continuing to trudge off to the voting booth every year and participating, I am giving my implied, tacit consent that I am OK with the choices I am being given.
Well, I'm not. I'm beyond sick of the human flotsam and self-aggrandizing bozos and the lying sacks of poo that inundate my television, enact policies that benefit those that already have money and security, pander to prejudice and humanity's worst elements to win votes, and in general are people I wouldn't have anything to do with in my day-to-day life, much less trust them to govern the city/county/state/nation. If we don't participate in the charade, the system won't change for the better, most likely. But if I continue to participate in it, it sure as hell isn't going to change... Andrew Cuomo is a human tumor, a boil on the ass of humanity. That this man has held as many public offices as he has, with ambitions of holding more, while having naked and obvious contempt for the public he allegedly serves is New York's best example of just how broken and ineffective our alleged "democracy" has turned out to be. We always tell the world how great it is to be "free" here in America--but if our freedom means in practice that we have to choose between Andrew Cuomo and some mental defective that parrots failed policies that haven't worked ever and never will as "solutions", well...It ain't what it's cracked up to be.
A pox on all of them.

Friday, September 12, 2014

On "Never Forgetting"

Yesterday was "Patriot Day," the anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon thirteen years ago that profoundly changed millions, perhaps even billions, of lives around the globe. I have written extensively about what happened as a result of 9/11 before, and don't really feel like rehashing it in its entirety here. But you have to fight the madness at times, and I am going to say a little bit of what I feel needs to be said, especially in view of the fact that this country is stupidly getting ourselves involved in another adventure overseas that has about as much chance of creating a lasting, peaceful solution to the problems in that area of the world as I do of becoming ruler of the Central African Republic.
We ended up fighting two wars as a result of the attacks. The one in Afghanistan was more justifiable, and the stated aim at the time--finding and bringing to justice Osama bin Laden--was one that almost everyone here, whatever their political persuasions, could and did get behind. It ended up taking ten years to find and kill bin Laden, and it would take too long to go over the entire sordid history of the war, but this needs to be said: 1) bin Laden's been dead for three years now, so 2) what the fuck are we still fighting in Afghanistan for? The hawks and neocons and dick-wavers and the rest of the force-is-the-answer crowd justify the continued presence by saying that Afghanistan's politics are a mess, and that it will be unstable and likely to foment further terrorist activity unless we are there to keep them busy. Well, some of us that know what we're talking about will tell you that Alexander the Great left a garrison in the same country twenty-three centuries ago for the same reason; the only times that unhappy land has ever known "security" and "peace" as we define it has come when there has been an imperial administration in place over it. None of the previous imperial overlords have been based halfway around the world, and all were more willing to use a greater degree of force than we are capable of doing. The original mission was accomplished. It's long past time to get out, and accept that we are not going to be able to impose our values and a security situation entirely to our liking on a country that simply is not amenable to such impositions.
The second war was not justifiable then or now. It was justified by a web of lies and falsehoods, it was botched from beginning to end, and it has more directly resulted in the messes that we are facing now, the ones that are leading to yet another goddamn "bombing campaign" that is going to accomplish nothing but make even more ordinary people around the world even more miserable and anti-American than they are now--and that's hardly possible. At least this president, for all his faults (and they are growing more legion by the day), is not going to send in ground troops again, like many blowhards and armchair generals want. But it's a measure of how far we have sunk as a nation that the only "solutions" we apparently have as national policies are military actions.
And that is what galls me, as a lifelong American, the most. When I was growing up, we were locked into a Cold War with a country that, despite copious propaganda and fine-sounding rhetoric, had nothing real to offer but armed force and repression to those places around the world in its orbit. The USA of the 1970s, and 80s was a much different place with different values than it is now. Our walk matched our talk, in plain English. We didn't act like an aggrieved bully whenever something happened around the world that we didn't like. We weren't sending bombs or troops everywhere--too many places, yes, but we also offered a vision of a better way to live our lives, an example of a better society. We took care of our own, without apologies. We were striving to live by, on every level, a higher code of conduct and morality than "because we're stronger than you." Did it appeal to everyone? Of course not. But for the vast majority of the rest of the world, we were the shining city on the hill, the place that other places wanted to be like.
And that's been lost, irretrievably lost. Even to our own population.
What we have spent my lifetime becoming is the new Rome--and more specifically, the Rome that was transitioning from Republic to Empire. Rome did impose a pax Romana on most of southern and western Europe and the Mediterranean basin that lasted centuries, and eventually fostered a larger sense of a shared culture--but it was imposed at the point of a sword, and the natives of nearly all the regions that Rome ruled hated the Romans themselves as brutal occupiers. And this is what Americans are becoming viewed as around the world--violent thugs whose word means little and that have nothing to offer but repression and a violent death, even as they talk incessantly of "freedom" and "justice."
But even that, most of us could live with. The part of the post 9/11 world that tears at me is what has happened on the home front. We have allowed the natural shock and fear resulted from a violent act committed on American soil to compromise our own values and principles, the ideals that we held, however imperfectly, to be our guiding stars in our own culture. We have succumbed, in the name of "security", to a vast erosion of our liberties and values, even as our leaders and yahoos that vote for them drone on and on about "freedom." We are not outraged over the imposition of a surveillance system even more vast and comprehensive than of the Soviets and their satellites had in place forty years ago. We have allowed our own demagogues and neo-fascists to distract us with chasing the straw men of "them," of immigrants and "fraudulent voters" and "rad-libs" and other bogeymen--and allowing the forces of power and greed to run roughshod over the rights many of us "real"Americans took for granted for so long. We have surrendered too many civil liberties in the name of "security," and although there is starting to be more resistance to the economic exploitation that the warmongering class has fomented to consolidate their hold on true power, and the ill-gotten and illegitimate money it brings them, it might be too late to reverse that tidal force of inequality and rapaciousness.
We have became a parody of what we are allegedly trying to protect. The American way of life, as it now stands, isn't worth protecting. Not when rampant greed, official repression, trivial bread and circuses, and the use of force as the first and last means of problem-solving are the main characteristics of this society.
That is what we should be remembering. The America of freedom of speech, press, and assembly, of the equality of economic opportunity, of a country committed to the well-being of all its citizens, is what we should be fighting to restore, to celebrate with eighteen-hundred-foot tall buildings, with memorials--a society and the moral framework underlying it that has vanished as thoroughly as the Twin Towers. And the tragedy is not that some fanatical Islamic terrorists took it away from us; all they did was commit a heinous crime. No, what has happened in the aftermath, we have done to ourselves, or allowed to be done to us We've lost our way because ultimately, the "most Christian nation on earth" has chosen to embrace the Old Testament, the brutal morality of power and control, of influencing others by force instead of the power of ideals and example. Not a day goes by when there isn't some bozo in the news loudly advocating some new atrocity to perpetrate, whether in Syria or Iraq or Ferguson or on the Mexican border or the streets of Binghamton or any other of six dozen "battlefronts."
I am willing to believe that a big majority of those imploring me to "never forget" 9/11 do not have venal motivations. But the banality of putting a flag out, posting videos of planes flying into towers, and blustering about kicking foreign, turban-wearing ass overseas doesn't do it for me, not in the least. I'm not going to forget 9/11; I lived through it. But I would rather not remember it as the catalyst of the end of the America that I grew up loving, an end brought about not by those seeking to destroy America from the outside, but rather by those that, in their fear and (in some cases) greed, have discarded the values and ideals of "America" in the name of saving it.
No, I'm not going to forget that day. But unlike most of us, I'm not willing to forget how it was before 9/11, and I'm going to remember all of what's happened afterwards, too. And if that makes some people uncomfortable--well,  at least the America that I love is more than armed forces willing to exterminate those that are not us. And increasingly, that's all that most of the "never forget" crowd have to hang onto. We can be--should be--used to be--so much more than death falling from the sky, than the imposition of regimes that will follow our "security" imperatives, of consumerism and boundless energy needs, of a culture growing increasingly insipid and stupid with every passing week.
It would be nice if we were willing to remember that.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Book Review: LAST ORDERS

Last Orders is the latest installment of Harry Turtledove's series "The War That Came Early", an alternate history that imagines how the course of World War II might have gone if Hitler had gone to war in fall 1938 over the Sudetenland rather than allow himself to be appeased at the Munich summit. At the end of the fourth book, the tide had turned in the European conflict, and the first two-thirds of this book is taken up with the beginnings of retreat by the Germans. But the last third is when the action gets interesting--Germany begins to stir into active revolt against the Nazis, the Republicans win the Spanish Civil War, the Germans declare war on the USA, and the Japanese begin to fall slowly back. The book moves into high gear when Hitler is assassinated and the Germans seek an armistice, and the European war ends at book's end. Whether this is the end of the series is unclear, as Japan is still fighting and the USSR has joined the USA in fighting it.
I've read over twenty of Turtledove's books by now, and most of his characters and the dialogue they engage in are more or less interchangeable. I'm used to it, but that doesn't mean I necessarily like it. Two decades into his career, though, there are signs that his style is evolving and his grasp of his craft is changing; in the last two books, several of the characters actually begin to show three dimensions, and not every snapshot is wooden and predictable. I am most interested to see if this trend carries over into whatever project he tackles next, because Turtledove does do a very good job when painting a bigger picture of the larger course of events. This series was more readable--and moved along much quicker--than a couple of his previous series, and if he does devote another book to finishing off the Japanese conflict, I will  be happy, because it isn't obvious what direction he might go in, based on some of the scenes in the last part of this book.