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Change We Can Believe In, XXVI

December 31, 2011 1 comment

Change We Can Believe In: Indefinite Detention

It’s almost two weeks since I promised a Change You Can Believe In post in which Obama “trample[s] on civil rights by signing into law the right to detain US citizens indefinitely.” The only problem is, he waited until today to sign the military spending bill, so I had to delay my post.

As I have said in many posts, and others have said better, through his eager and unexpected continuation of Bush administration civil rights violations and his further willingness to enshrine them in law, Obama has succeeded in turning what once appeared to be the mad acts of a group of zealots into bipartisan procedure. From an ACLU press release:

President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) into law today. The statute contains a sweeping worldwide indefinite detention provision. While President Obama issued a signing statement saying he had “serious reservations” about the provisions, the statement only applies to how his administration would use the authorities granted by the NDAA, and would not affect how the law is interpreted by subsequent administrations. The White House had threatened to veto an earlier version of the NDAA, but reversed course shortly before Congress voted on the final bill.

“President Obama’s action today is a blight on his legacy because he will forever be known as the president who signed indefinite detention without charge or trial into law,” said Anthony D. Romero, ACLU executive director. “The statute is particularly dangerous because it has no temporal or geographic limitations, and can be used by this and future presidents to militarily detain people captured far from any battlefield. … Any hope that the Obama administration would roll back the constitutional excesses of George Bush in the war on terror was extinguished today.”

See also a lengthy post today by Glenn Greenwald that, some ways down, gives an overview of Obama’s policies. Here’s an excerpt. (The original has many embedded links that I have not taken the time to reproduce.)

The candidate supported by progressives — President Obama — himself holds heinous views on a slew of critical issues and himself has done heinous things with the power he has been vested. He has slaughtered civilians — Muslim children by the dozens — not once or twice, but continuously in numerous nations with drones, cluster bombs and other forms of attack. He has sought to overturn a global ban on cluster bombs. He has institutionalized the power of Presidents — in secret and with no checks — to target American citizens for assassination-by-CIA, far from any battlefield. He has waged an unprecedented war against whistleblowers, the protection of which was once a liberal shibboleth. He rendered permanently irrelevant the War Powers Resolution, a crown jewel in the list of post-Vietnam liberal accomplishments, and thus enshrined the power of Presidents to wage war even in the face of a Congressional vote against it. His obsession with secrecy is so extreme that it has become darkly laughable in its manifestations, and he even worked to amend the Freedom of Information Act (another crown jewel of liberal legislative successes) when compliance became inconvenient.

He has entrenched for a generation the once-reviled, once-radical Bush/Cheney Terrorism powers of indefinite detention, military commissions, and the state secret privilege as a weapon to immunize political leaders from the rule of law. He has shielded Bush era criminals from every last form of accountability. He has vigorously prosecuted the cruel and supremely racist War on Drugs, including those parts he vowed during the campaign to relinquish — a war which devastates minority communities and encages and converts into felons huge numbers of minority youth for no good reason. He has empowered thieving bankers through the Wall Street bailout, Fed secrecy, efforts to shield mortgage defrauders from prosecution, and the appointment of an endless roster of former Goldman, Sachs executives and lobbyists. He’s brought the nation to a full-on Cold War and a covert hot war with Iran, on the brink of far greater hostilities. He has made the U.S. as subservient as ever to the destructive agenda of the right-wing Israeli government. His support for some of the Arab world’s most repressive regimes is as strong as ever.

Would I rather have seen McCain elected? No, of course not. But that’s not the point. The point is, Obama has been a surprise and a disappointment in so many policy areas, areas where it seems we are powerless to effect change. I don’t doubt for a moment that Hillary Clinton would have supported or implemented essentially the same policies. The only candidate daring to suggest alternative ways of thinking — and he has his own problems — is Ron Paul. What to make of Paul’s candidacy? (This is the starting point of Greenwald’s post.) I sure don’t see myself voting for him, and I find many of his positions disturbing. But I am thankful that at least one candidate is questioning the bipartisan consensus laid out in the passage above.

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Categories: Law, Politics

Emma Aging

December 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Phyllis, Southdown Sheep, Age 13

[Isa Leshko]

We took Emma to the vet today for her annual checkup. (No, that’s not her. That’s a sheep. Emma’s a cat. I’ll explain the relevance of the photo in a bit.)

Emma is 15 years old now, 15 and 8 months, and today for a change the visit wasn’t a routine in and out. The time had come at last for a discussion of senior cats and their ailments. Emma has slowed down, of course. She’s not much given to running around the yard anymore. When I start up the stairs, she no longer bounds past me. She still manages to jump up on the bed, but isn’t too keen to get onto the desk when I’m working. And worse, she struggles when she jumps down.

We discussed all this with the vet, as well what appears to be the occasional difficulty Emma has walking. Her rear legs or hips look strained. Last year, Gail explained this to the vet, who examined Emma and saw little cause for alarm. This year, when she (the vet) palpated Emma’s hips, Emma complained. The vet suggested that we could consider an x-ray, and recommended some dental care: a cleaning and perhaps a tooth extraction. If we go through with the dental work, Emma will need to be anesthetized, which would provide the opportunity for an x-ray, should we wish.

I don’t imagine there’s much to do about Emma’s hips if we do find a problem. I’m more concerned with giving her pain relief. But, of course, it’s difficult to gauge what sort of pain a cat is in, an issue we also discussed with the vet.

All of which gave us much to think about, and served as perfect preparation for the article I found on the NYT home page when we returned home with Emma: What We Can Learn from Old Animals.

In an unusual project, Isa Leshko, a fine-art photographer who lives in Philadelphia, set out to capture glimpses of animals at a time when they rarely attract much admiration or media attention — in their twilight years. The photographs, part of “a series called Elderly Animals”, are intimate and at times gripping. In one, a thoroughbred horse named Handsome One, age 33, stands in a stable, his hair wispy and his frame showing signs of time. In another, a pair of Finn sheep at the advanced age of 12 embrace as an elderly couple on a park bench might. And in another, a geriatric chow mix named Red lies with his paw under his chin, the signs of glaucoma apparent in his onyx-colored eyes.

The Times has a slideshow of twelve of Leshko’s photos, and you can see more by following the link above to Leshko’s website. What’s striking is the dignity of the animals, a dignity Emma has acquired as well. As she ages, her feral ferocity turns to sweetness.

Categories: Animals, Cats, Family

Milestone, III

December 29, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s December 29, which means it’s time for the annual review here at Ron’s View of how much I’ve driven my car in the last year. I don’t imagine anyone besides me finds this all that interesting. Nonetheless, I enjoy doing the analysis, and writing a post about it allows me to record the data in a convenient place. Come along for the ride if you wish.

The significance of December 29 is that it’s the day I bought the car, five years ago. My first milestone post was written three years later. In it, I observed that “the odometer reads 11,640. Dividing by 3, we find that I have averaged 3880 miles per year. And dividing that by 12, we find that I average 323 1/3 miles per month.” I then noted that in the car’s early days, I made three round trips to Vancouver, BC, on University business for a total of about 900 miles. “Subtracting 900 from the total, I find that I’ve done 10,740 miles of driving over three years, or 3580 per year, or 298 1/3 miles per month. That’s more like it.”

In last year’s milestone post, I discovered that my driving was down. The odometer was at 14,908, meaning I had “driven the car 3268 miles this year, for an average of only 272 1/3 miles per month, or a fraction over 9 miles a day. Averaging over the car’s four years, I have driven 3727 miles per year, or about 310 1/2 miles per month, or about 10 1/3 miles a day. If I deduct the 900 miles of driving to Vancouver and back, I bring the daily average over four years down to about 9 3/4 miles.”

This year, I drove more. My odometer now reads 18,601. (I didn’t want that extra mile. It’s only there because we took Emma to the vet this afternoon and had to return the long way to avoid traffic.) The beauty of 18,600 (let’s just say that’s my total) is that when you divide by 5 you get an average of 3720 miles per year, and when you divide that by 12, you get the nice round number of 310 miles of driving per month on average over the five years that I’ve owned the car. As you can see, that’s about where the average was a year ago, meaning it’s been an average year.

Digging a little deeper, I actually drove 3693 miles this past year, an increase of 425 miles over last year. It’s not hard to find the source of the increase. Gail knew instantly when I asked her to guess: our Memorial Day weekend trip to Portland. Take that away and our mileage in years four and five would have been nearly identical.

Thus, Portland trip aside, I’m still driving less than 10 miles a day. My largest drive in any given month often is a trip to the airport and back. As I concluded last year, I’m a strong candidate for an all-electric car. It won’t get us to Portland, at least not until I-5 has charging stations, but it will do everything else I need it to do.

What do you know? I just did a search on I-5 charging stations and discovered that there was an announcement just yesterday. They’re coming soon! There’s coverage in today’s Seattle Times, but on an inside page, so I had missed it. Still, 30-minute charges every 60 miles doesn’t sound all that attractive.

The real problem is, my car is going to last forever at the rate that I’m driving it. I’m not prepared to let it go just yet. The electric car will have to wait a few more years, by which time there should be a better charging infrastructure and better mileage between charges.

Categories: Automobiles

Triple Crossing

December 29, 2011 Leave a comment

In several posts over the last few weeks about books I’ve read or started to read or downloaded, I have mentioned two books that I started and deferred in favor of Alexandra Fuller’s two memoirs, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood and Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. I was inspired to buy both deferred books — Robert P. Crease’s World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement and Max Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia — by reviews in the Wall Street Journal, and was enjoying each, but not enough to keep my mind from wandering. Then, three weeks ago, I made another spontaneous purchase based on a review, the review in the NY Review of Books by Malise Ruthven of Hamid Dabashi’s Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest.

Alas, after reading some way sin to Dabashi’s book, as well as returning to Crease and Egremont, I became distracted yet again, this time courtesy of the end-of-year listings of best books of various types, or by various reviewers, in the NYT. Their 100 notable books of 2011 listing over a month ago reminded me of three novels I had thought of reading: Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, and Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. At the end of November, the NYT’s 10 best books of 2011 appeared online (it wasn’t printed until two Sundays later), and the selection of five best works of fiction included all three of the above, further motivating me to explore them further.

A week later, turning away from Dabashi, I did so, first by re-reading the NYT reviews of them. Then I downloaded the opening portion of Russell’s book onto my Kindle and decided maybe it wasn’t for me, at least not just now. I downloaded the opening of Harbach’s book and thought, yes, sure, I want to read this, but if I start it now (three weeks ago), it will really interfere with both work I needed to get done and, perhaps, any hope of finishing the three books I was in the midst of. I never did get around to downloading the opening of Obreht’s book, having decided that The Art of Fielding would be next, when I got to it.

To confuse matters, NYT crime/thriller reviewer Marilyn Stasio produced her look back on notable crime books of 2011. I have mentioned on several occasions that it was her regular report on crime books in the Sunday Book Review of Labor Day weekend that tipped me off to Martin Walker’s marvelous Bruno, Chief of Police crime series. She briefly reviewed the third of the books just as I was deciding what to read that coming week in Nantucket, prompting me to download the first one. What I didn’t mention was that two other books in that very same Stasio report intrigued me, and both were on her list of books of the year.

Stasio opened her September 4 review with a look at George Pelecanos’s latest novel, The Cut. There was a time when I read every new book by Pelecanos. I enjoyed the characters and the look at ordinary people’s lives in the DC away from the Mall. But I wearied of what I took to be the increasingly didactic nature of the books, the over-emphasis on fathers and sons and the importance of fathers. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for fathers, and the father-and-son relationship. I was just getting tired of reading Pelecanos’s treatment of them. As a result, The Cut didn’t make the cut.

Yet, three months later, Stasio was back with The Cut, listing it under the heading “Favorite New Sleuth”: “George Pelecanos’s new protagonist, Spero Lucas, is not only younger and friskier than most private eyes, he’s also untainted by the cynicism that goes with the profession. Making his first appearance in THE CUT, Lucas brings his lusty appetites and taste for danger to a vivid narrative about gang wars in Washington, D.C. The big question: Can Pelecanos keep his young hero from flaming out?”

I took another look, and decided I’m not ready to return to Pelecanos.

The other book Stasio wrote about in September that caught my eye was Sebastian Rotella’s Triple Crossing: A Novel, about which Stasio said:

Reading Sebastian Rotella’s remarkable first novel, TRIPLE CROSSING, is like putting on night goggles: you see things you never knew were there. Rotella, who has covered crime in Latin America as a journalist, sets this thriller in the borderlands of San Diego and Tijuana, but takes the plot beyond the well-traveled fictional territory of Mexican drug cartels and beleaguered customs agents — all the way to the lawless “triple border” of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay where international smugglers and terrorists meet to do business.

Valentine Pescatore, an extremely likable young agent with the Border Patrol, represents the good guys for the United States. Leobardo Mén­dez, commander of an elite law-enforcement unit known as the Diogenes Group, carries the colors for the Mexicans. The pounding action scenes are driven by Rotella’s ferocious prose style, but it takes the night vision of a couple of decent cops to expose the scale of the violence, the level of the corruption, the sheer audacity of the ­criminals.

That was almost enough for me to download it in Nantucket. I didn’t only because of Stasio’s mention of violence. I feared it might push me beyond my limits, an odd thing perhaps to say when the book I was trying to choose for Nantucket reading would be next in line after I completed an old Lee Child/Jack Reacher thriller. Nonetheless, I decided I’d rather read about Bruno and the charms of life in the Dordogne than drug trafficking on the Mexican border.

And then Stasio gave Triple Crossing two awards in her end-of-year review: “Favorite Debut Novel” and “Favorite Action Thriller”. That was enough for me. I downloaded it, put aside Shi’ism and measurements and East Prussia, and commenced to learn about life on the border.

Was it great? You bet. I loved it. I finished it ten days ago, so it’s no longer fresh in my mind. I’ll let Stasio’s comments suffice, except to say that my one reservation is that I found one of the key relationships unconvincing. I put my doubts aside while reading the book. Looking back, though, I just don’t find it plausible.

By the way, according to the review of the book in the Washington Post in August, “John Malkovich’s production company has bought the rights to the novel and plans to convert it into a miniseries. It could be a good one.” (The review also mentions the same reservation that I have.)

One side benefit of my reading Triple Crossing is that I now know in some detail how Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay meet: the river junction, the bridges, and so on. Once the action shifts there, it’s well worth taking the time to look up the geography on google maps, as I did.

What next? Well, I had that book backlog I wanted to do something about, so I returned to Crease’s World in the Balance and finished it last week. It told some fascinating tales about measuring standards, starting with a chapter on China two thousand years ago and another on West Africa five hundred years ago, before getting to the heart of the matter, the introduction of the metric system in France in the aftermath of the revolution and subsequent developments around the world. Sometimes, though, the themes seem to be pushed in ways the story doesn’t entirely support, in what seems to be an effort to make a coherent book out of what initially was a series of independent articles. Plus, there are some annoying little editorial failures.

The one that bugged me the most, trivial though it was, was the need, on introducing a key character, Charles Saunders Peirce, to explain that his name is pronounced like “purse.” Sure, that’s true, and worth telling. But why was it not worth telling a hundred pages earlier when we met his father Benjamin? (Benjamin appears as the superintendent of the US Coast Survey, Charles as the first person to attempt to use the measurement of wavelengths of light as a natural length standard. I can’t mention Benjamin without also noting that he was the most important American algebraist of the nineteenth century, with contributions to the study of ring theory that every ring theorist — me, for instance — learns and uses.)

I’ve been slowly working my way through Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia in recent days, reaching not quite the halfway point yesterday. And what do you know? It’s reviewed by Richard Eder today in the NYT, not entirely flatteringly. I’ve been convincing myself that I enjoy Egremont’s meandering approach. A little World War I history here, a little World War II history there. A few words about one historical figure, then another. It’s not entirely clear why we spend so many pages in Ypres reading about British World War I war dead. Belgium’s a long way from East Prussia. But that’s the journey we sign up for when we read the book. Eder clearly has less patience for it than I do.

Will I make it to the end? Will I finish Dabashi’s look at Shi’ism? Or will I tackle Harbach’s The Art of Fielding?

That reminds me. There’s another option. In Stasio’s look back at 2011 she awards “Favorite Mystery with a Social Conscience” to Glaswegian author Denise Mina’s The End of the Wasp Season: “Mina’s gritty Glasgow procedural features a female cop who takes pity on a 15-year-old killer because she’s witnessed the neglect that can produce such damaged children.” I downloaded the opening. My gosh! Talk about violence. I couldn’t get past the fourth page. Maybe the opening murder is as bad as it gets and I should keep going. Given my love of Glasgow, I just might enjoy it.

Categories: Books

Narcissistic Delusion

December 28, 2011 Leave a comment

President Obama and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of Iraq at Arlington National Cemetery, December 12

[Doug Mills, NYT]

One of the most disturbing features of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is his constant emphasis on the importance of American exceptionalism, with concomitant dishonest attacks on Obama for his failure to recognize this exceptionalism and his “apologizing” abroad for our behavior. Dishonest? See, for instance, Glenn Kessler’s Washington Post article earlier this month, in which we learn:

Romney likes to say that President Obama apologized overseas for the United States. He even titled his campaign book “No Apology.”

Even more, Romney suggests, Obama does not believe in American strength and greatness. The assertion feeds into a subterranean narrative that Obama, with his exotic, mixed-race background, is not really American in the first place.

[snip]

In a lengthy article on the Fact Checker blog, we tracked down every statement Obama uttered that partisans claim was an apology, and concluded that each one had been misquoted or taken out of context.

But I’m not here to complain about Romney’s dishonesty. If I started, how would I stop? Instead, I wish to complain about Obama’s own emphasis on American exceptionalism. The irony of Romney’s distorted attacks is that Obama stands side by side with him in declaring how special we are, and I find this disturbing in its own right.

Yes, a mixed message here. I don’t like Romney’s attacks on Obama for not appreciating America’s uniqueness. And I don’t like Obama’s claims of America’s uniqueness. But that’s the case, and the larger underlying issue is the impoverishment of moral and political discourse in this country, especially in the context of war.

Which brings me to Jim Rigby’s powerful Christmas Day piece at Truthout on Obama and the Iraq War. Rigby is pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas. Rather than exceptionalism, he speaks of “narcissistic delusion.” Below is the relevant passage. Please do take the time to read his article in its entirety.

What have we learned as a result of the war? That was answered by Obama’s words to the returning troops:

Because of you – because you sacrificed so much for a people that you had never met – Iraqis have a chance to forge their own destiny. That’s part of what makes us special as Americans. Unlike the old empires, we don’t make these sacrifices for territory or for resources. We do it because it’s right. There can be no fuller expression of America’s support for self-determination than our leaving Iraq to its people. That says something about who we are.

Looking back at my earlier Christmas article, I feel pain, not pride, at what the president said. His speech to returning troops could have been taken from any leader, of any nation, from any period of history, simply by changing the names and places. It is the kind of speech every leader has given since the emperors: brave and noble words, written in someone else’s blood. This president, who ran, in part, against this war, has come to repeat the party line. This president, who once spoke of respect for all people of the world, has now deported more immigrants than Bush.

Hearing another speech expressing our nation’s narcissistic delusion made me physically ill. I could not help but think of the bloody wake such rhetoric leaves behind when put into action. The fact that we are leaving Iraq at this point says nothing about the purity of our initial motives. Even bank robbers don’t stay around after the crime has been committed. I appreciate trying to make our young soldiers not feel like they were pawns in someone else’s parlor game, but for the sake of future generations, we must painfully remember and affirm that that is exactly what happened.

We, from the United States, are not like the people in our nativity scenes. We are like the Romans looming ominously in the background of the story. Christmas is about the little people of the world who find joy and meaning while living under someone else’s boot. We from the United States can only celebrate Christmas by ending our cultural narcissism, renouncing empire, and making room for the poor and the weak of the world, such as Joseph and Mary.

Categories: Politics, War

Annoying Golf Partners

December 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Cell Phone Guy

[Cy Cyr, Golf Digest, December 2011]

This may be of limited interest, but I got a kick out of Golf Digest’s slideshow of The 18 Most Annoying Golf Partners, so I’m passing it on. (HT: Geoff Shackelford.) Pictured above is Cell Phone Guy. Defining characteristics: Considers golf course an extension of his office, home, therapist’s couch, etc. Has perfected the balancing-phone-on-the-shoulder wedge shot. Favorite expression: “You guys hit. I gotta take this.” The Parking Lot Pro is good too. And The Air Counter. Have a look.

Categories: Golf, Humor

Crystal Bridges

December 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Thomas Moran, Valley of the Catawissa in Autumn, ca. 1862

[Steven Watson, from the Crystal Bridges website]

Roberta Smith has a piece in today’s tomorrow’s NYT on the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art that had me heading to google maps to find out how to drive to Bentonville, Arkansas from Tulsa International Airport.* I checked flights, too. Not that we’re leaving in the next week or two, but I’d sure like to.

I suppose it would make sense, if we go, to combine the visit with other activities in the region. For example, Branson, Missouri is only 85 miles away. We could take in a concert. Or we could head down to Little Rock for the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and the Clinton Library, except that Little Rock isn’t all that close.

We’ll take our time planning the trip. The longer we wait, the richer the Crystal Bridges collection will be. And I haven’t even discussed the idea with Gail. (Are you reading this?) In the meantime, I can enjoy studying the art at its website.

Charles Sheeler, Amoskeag Mills #2, 1948

[From the Crystal Bridges website]

Here’s the opening to the NYT article:

By just about any measure, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened last month in this small town in northwest Arkansas, is off to a running start. The dream-come-true of Alice Walton, an heir to the Walmart fortune, it is characterized by people both inside and outside the museum as a work in progress, with plenty of room for improvement. But there it stands, a big, serious, confident, new institution with more than 50,000 square feet of gallery space and a collection worth hundreds of millions of dollars in a region almost devoid of art museums.

Much more than just a demonstration of what money can buy or an attempt to burnish a rich family’s name, Crystal Bridges is poised to make a genuine cultural contribution, and possibly to become a place of pilgrimage for art lovers from around the world.

See also the accompanying slide show.

Harry Sternberg, Thomas Hart Benton, 1944

[From the Crystal Bridges website, courtesy of the artist’s estate]

*Addendum: Somehow, it didn’t occur to me that one might be able to take a commercial airline flight into Bentonville, Arkansas. I should have realized that with the size and importance of Walmart, and the Clinton presidency, commercial flights would have been introduced some time in the 1990s, and so they were, in November 1998. (See here for a history.) No need to fly into Tulsa, the closest city of significant size. Instead we can fly, for instance, into O’Hare and then on to Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, just 14 miles outside Bentonville.

Categories: Art, Travel