Kneeling for La Borinqueña

October 20th, 2017

My city is likely to receive a bounty from the hurricane that trashed Puerto Rico. Hartford is home to tens of thousands of people with roots in the island culture. Over the coming days and weeks we should expect many hurricane evacuees to arrive here, where they can find friends and relatives. People from the Caribbean have enriched our city in my lifetime, and a wave of new arrivals is an occasion. Let’s hope our community can come up with a coherent strategy to accommodate them.

In the wake of the hurricane,you might have expected our national government to be at work on a coherent strategy for Puerto Rico. We hear that “the island” borrowed billions of dollars and can’t pay them back. To judge from published reports, the money didn’t go to “the island” or to most of its residents. Rather, it seems to have ended up in the pockets of rich people, who got richer in proportion to the money that was advanced. Poor people got poorer, but they’re the ones whose pockets will be emptied to pay the money back. No coherent strategy has been suggested  to deal with that situation.

Even though it’s part of the USA and its residents are American citizens by birthright, Puerto Rico is administered as a colonial possession. It’s subject to special federal laws that facilitate the exploitation of labor and natural resources for private profit. For a hundred and some years, capitalists have seen to it that the status of most islanders hovers slightly above that of livestock. Roads, bridges, utilities, schools, and public amenities of every kind are denied proper maintenance, making the entire infrastructure delicate and vulnerable to destructive weather.

Don’t look for a coherent strategy to deal with destructive weather. With the island reeling from two storms in quick succession, causing unprecedented damage, you might expect some suggestions for what to do when the next one strikes. Because forecasters say it will. I haven’t heard a thing. It appears that some residential neighborhoods at low elevations will have to be abandoned permanently. What will happen to the people who lived there isn’t discussed. By anybody. How and when normal commerce will be restored is anyone’s guess, and we hear no plan of action from any source. Here’s a place that ought to be a tropical paradise, and yet its future is bleak. Why?

Some think the problem is political. Puerto Rico isn’t a sovereign but a possession of the US government. Public policy for Puerto Rico is made not in San Juan but in Washington, DC. Given a chance, the people of Puerto Rico might achieve a better state of preparedness than the coalition of bureaucrats and businessmen that govern today and that have failed the people so grievously. This compact island could be generating electric power to a modern grid entirely with inexhaustible solar and tidal resources, if only the oil and gas industry were willing to give up the island’s lucrative market. It’s an island with ample high ground and no system to relocate people threatened regularly by flooding, which is predicted to get worse with each passing year.

Puerto Ricans will probably achieve some sort of equilibrium as they cope with the devastation. Many will leave the island. Many who are here on the mainland now will find ways to aid those who remain. Government and the mass media will almost certainly hinder efforts at recovery, as they maneuver to create opportunities for rich people to profit from the disaster. Because of the corruption of these institutions, Americans have no reliable knowledge of what sort of future Puerto Ricans want or need, further impeding progress. In places like Hartford, support for the recovery will be strong across all segments of the public, but Puerto Rico will soon be forgotten by most Americans. The resolve and resourcefullness of its people will determine the island’s future.

Nine to Five

October 18th, 2017

In the struggle against sexual harassment in  the workplace, the first step must be accountability for notorious, justice-evading, serial sexual predators Clarence Thomas and  Bill Clinton. Thomas, whose victims were attacked by the  political establishment of both parties as liars and  opportunists, sits on the Supreme Court of the United  States. Clinton, whose victims were branded sluts by his  loyal wife, continues to draw enthusiastic applause from  Democrats of all sexes. Every honor we bestow on these  two is an endorsement of sex crime.

Notice how elegantly the mass media manage to talk about  sex harassment without mentioning either Clinton or  Thomas. In defiance of logic and the weight of available  evidence, the media decided to vindicate these two. It  was a cynical decision, but it enabled reporters to  avoid pointing out from time to time that an author of  historic court decisions and a much applauded president  are sex fiends. A reporter can’t pay proper respect to  these two without lying to himself and his readers.  Better just omit these two successful sexual predators  from the discussion.

We should note that there was no such thing as sexual  harassment until fairly recently. It was taken for  granted that men in positions of authority had absolute  power over their female subordinates. If your sister’s boss was a gentleman, it wasn’t because he had any legal  obligation toward her. I had a boss–a well-known  attorney placed in a position of authority over a staff  of young lawyers–who ordered one of my colleagues, a  shapely woman, to turn around to be displayed to a  visitor. She reported it, but in those days it was  considered harmless and trivial. Still is. We have legal obligations now that we didn’t have then, but they’re  weak, as the elevated status of Clinton and Thomas (not  to mention Trump) attests.

Almost 30 years ago, I was invited to coach a high-school mock trial team representing my alma mater. The  case involved a woman who was propositioned by her boss.  The common law was just then beginning to recognize that  employees ought to be protected from such abuses of  authority, and there were a few new cases that were meant to do just that. Sexual harassment was a  new legal term of art. Since then, I’ve represented several victims of workplace sexual abuse. In every case, the culpable party was the boss, and every one of these guys thought he was doing the woman a favor by paying attention to her. Like Clinton. Like Thomas.

Our clients showed great courage in taking their bosses to court, especially considering how things turned out for victims of celebrities like Clinton and Thomas. The fact that these two men still command respect puts a chill on any victim of workplace abuse. Weinstein, Cosby and Trump are beneficiaries of the lax-enforcement doctrine adopted by the media to accommodate these two. The cost is placed on working women, millions of whom, ironically, voted last year to put a sex fiend and his enabler back in the White House.

If we were living in a work of fiction, Clinton and Thomas would both have broken noses. Fiction can return us to an age when our value system included an  inclination to protect the weak from the strong. We  abandoned that value when we became what we  euphemistically call a “superpower.” As a nation, we’ve  destroyed some of the weakest peoples on earth, yet  we’re unapologetic, even boastful. Like Thomas. Like Clinton. Like Trump. Can’t maintain that  attitude and a binding moral code at the same time.  Victims of bullies are left to sink or swim by people  like us. If we lived in a work of fiction, the victims  would band together and buy some muscle to inflict  retribution, and values would be restored by force.

But we don’t live in a work of fiction, and in real life there’s no security for working women until we insist on justice for the sex criminals that walk among us. We can’t excuse our sons for their sexual misconduct and affect shock when our daughters are molested.

Ope Springs Eternal

October 9th, 2017

I had a call from a doctor conducting a study of Veterans Hospital patients who had been prescribed “opioids” for pain. Two years ago, after some major surgery to my digestive tract, I got a big bottle of oxycodone, which is a tiny pill that kills pain like magic. It mimics the effects of heroin and is every bit as addictive. The researcher wanted to know who had prescribed the drug and how much warning I’d received about the risks. I didn’t have much to offer in the way of details. I’d spent a month in intensive care with 20 different nurses and a dozen doctors, and they all merged together. I’m sure somebody told me about the risks of the pills, but I already knew about addiction, which I’ve seen at pretty close quarters. 

The interview, which was recorded, went on for about 15 minutes with questions probing how much I knew about opioids and what I might recommend in the way of precautions, counseling, intervention and other possible means of reducing risk. I told her she might want to consider calling the drugs “narcotics,” which they are, instead of “opioids,” which might not be so readily recognized as addictive. I suppose that’s just what the drug-dealers intended, to disguise the addictive potential of the drugs our doctors are giving us.

I was a little surprised that in 15 minutes my interviewer never asked about the euphoric effects of the drug I’d taken. Did she think I hadn’t noticed that two pills not only relieve your pain but also get you high? Take two more in two hours and double your pleasure. No VA doctor or nurse ever talked to me about that, and this researcher seemed to be censoring it out of our conversation. I suggested that patients probably ought to get at least this warning: “If you want to get high, don’t use this. Use something else. Unless you’re dying, in which case addiction’s not a worry.”

Instead of probing that subject any further, my interviewer veered off to ask the question that made her regret she’d called me. “Is there anything we haven’t talked about that relates to your experience with opioids?”

“Duh! Cannabis! Ever hear of it? Legal in my state, but not for VA patiens. It’s a pain killer. It’s a euphoriant. It’s not habit-forming. In fact, it cures addiction in many cases. Doctors and nurses won’t even talk about it, even though most of you use it.”

She stammered out a few expressions of surprise. I asked her directly if she used cannabis. No answer. Totally discredited. So be on the lookout for a study of veterans prescribed “opioids.” Whatever they tell you, stay skeptical.

Keep and Bear

October 2nd, 2017

At least some measure of blame for the mass shootings in Las Vegas yesterday must be assigned to five right-wing justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. With four justices dissenting, the court majority made a decision a few years ago that guaranteed this killer’s personal right to carry firearms. The judges were not bound by any law or doctrine to sanctify that guarantee, but, rather, were persuaded by the arguments of a powerful cabal of weapons manufacturers. If that decision had gone the other way, the Vegas shooter might not have found it so easy to open up with long-range, automatic, military-grade weaponry on a crowd of concert-goers a quarter mile away. 

The high court decision involved a Washington, DC, statute that would have effectively disarmed DC firearms owners. In overturning this law, the court majority had to ignore the language of the Constitution. Unique among the ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights, the second amendment has a condition attached. It doesn’t say, simply, “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Rather, that language follows the acknowledgment of a condition under which the founders lived, namely, that a “well-regulated militia” was in those times “necessary to the security of a free state.”

In our jurisprudence, words are considered to have meaning, and this condition wouldn’t have been inserted into the amendment without some purpose. It marks a recognition among the founders that a time would come when the security of our free state would be maintained not by a militia but by a standing army and navy, as it is today, and a federal guarantee of the right to keep and bear arms would no longer be necessary.

The five justices decided otherwise. The guarantee is personal and entitles individual Americans to carry guns “for self-defense.” The clause referring to a well-regulated militia is as quaint and anachronistic as it sounds and in no way diminishes the right guaranteed by the main clause.

The practical effect of this counter-logical decision is that the record toll achieved by the Vegas killer will be surpassed sooner or later unless we repeal the second amendment. The high court’s decision gives us no alternative. Not that repeal would bring any radical changes. Repeal would not place a ban on firearms, but it would make regulation possible. We might expect some states to enact laws like the draconian statute that the court invalidated, while others, maybe Nevada, might allow residents to carry assault weapons on the street. But if Nevadans suddenly wanted to follow a more prudent course, they could. Repeal of the second amendment is an idea whose time arrived yesterday.

Trump Abandons Stateless Children

September 5th, 2017

In support of its decision to rescind the federal policy that allows certain undocumented immigrants to enjoy some of the privileges of citizenship, the Department of Justice declares  that its adoption was in defiance of federal immigration law. Known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the policy is a direction to immigration officers to refrain from enforcement actions against immigrants who entered the country as children, provided the beneficiary is 30 years old or younger, is attending school or has a high school diploma or honorable discharge from the armed forces, and has no criminal record. The policy has been challenged in federal court on the grounds that the president doesn’t have the authority to relax enforcement under current immigration laws. The Justice Department’s action amounts to capitulation to the court challenges. It acknowledges the plenary authority of the legislative branch to make immigration laws. It’s likely to result in a loss of employment and possible exclusion from the USA for hundreds of thousands of young people.

If the logic of the rescission were applied consistently, our armed forces would be obliged to interrupt combat operations in Syria and Afghanistan and generally refrain from killing people in faraway places. These operations are in defiance of our constitution which explicitly vests the legislative branch with plenary authority to declare war. The president may be commander-in-chief, but, just as he’s not allowed to make immigration laws on his own, he’s not allowed to attack foreign countries without congressional action.

If it seems odd to you that an unlawful exercise of authority that benefits disadvantaged people is so easily challenged while an unlawful exercise of authority that amounts to mass murder goes unchallenged, you’re not alone. If you’re planning to write your member in support of a legislative solution to the problem facing these young immigrants, you might also remind him or her of this other longstanding abuse of presidential authority and the devastation and misery it’s causing people in distant lands.


August 29th, 2017

Knee-jerk hypercapitalists may recall the words of their celebrated  spokesman Grover Norquist: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” The quality of preparedness and response furnished by state, local and federal authorities to the people of Houston tells us the drowning was successful. Even though the “responsible” authorities knew that there would be widespread flooding, there was no evacuation plan, no advance provision for emergency shelter, no coordinated rescue strategy, nothing to indicate that Houston or Texas or even the USA has a functioning government.  You might hope that your state and city have made better preparations for big emergencies, but they probably haven’t. 

Not that anybody is asking. Well into the third day of the crisis in Houston, you can search high and low for journalistic criticism of government authorities, and you will find nothing. On the contrary, the media have been showering praise on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which didn’t even show up until Day Two of the disaster, and the Texas National Guard, which is “mobilized” but still ineffectual as of Day Three. You might expect that the question on every reporter’s lips would be “Was any lesson learned from Katrina?” It’s not.

What do you have a right to expect from government in an emergency like the one in Houston? The answer seems to be, “Nothing.” The consensus among reporters is that this disaster is simply too big and too severe for government. Nobody is questioning the decision of authorities in Texas not to evacuate Houston in advance. The media people know perfectly well that it was a bad call, but they’re censoring the inadequacy of preparedness out of their coverage. You can see that there are few boats plying flooded neighborhoods, few cots in emergency shelters, few buses delivering refugees, no sign of responsible government whatsoever. Plenty of video of inundated neighborhoods and occasional rescues by private parties, but not much in the way of an organized response, and no comment from the media.

The censorship should come as no surprise. The corrupt institution we call journalism depends on access to government officials for a supply of press releases, statements, and leaks to feed the information stream we innocently accept as “news.” In return for access, news-mongers must refrain from criticism. It makes it difficult for us news-consumers to assess the performance of our leaders, but accountability is the price of freedom.

If all this sounds like capitulation, it is.  The Houston police and fire authorities are prepared, but not for this. Terrorism is the big risk, and the authorities are armed to the teeth for that sort of unlikely event. Heavy weapons, kevlar suits, shields, and armored personnel carriers have been distributed in abundance; boats for flood-prone areas, not so much.

It’s true that Texans voted for less government, but maybe they didn’t deserve to get it.


August 25th, 2017

The President of the United States should be a role model for all of us. In that spirit, I’m recommending that all of us (for fun) talk like Donald Trump. So, for example, when you make a batch of hamburgers for your family, you say, “These are going to be the best hamburgers you’ve ever eaten. No, the best hamburgers anybody’s ever eaten in the history of the world. And that’s because of the quality of the cook. If there was a  Nobel prize for cooking, I would definitely get it. Ask anybody . . . ” and so on. If we all did this all the time, it would be a great crowd gag and maybe motivate some of the people who have the power to do it to dump this clown.

Defaming Islam

August 18th, 2017

News-consumers are entitled to an explanation of this phrase, which appears in just about every journalistic account of the latest mass killings in Spain: “The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Barcelona violence.”

The statement is not factual, because there is no person who speaks officially for “The Islamic State,” which is itself not an identifiable political entity but, rather, an acronym of English intitials invented by somebody somewhere to refer to terrorists and used on the Internet to claim responsibility for acts of mayhem. There’s an online presence that calls itself the Amaq News Agency, but it’s no more identifiable as a Muslim organization than the entity it claims to speak for. No other source is disclosed for the claim of responsibility, which effectively lays blame for the attack with people of a particular religion. If you seek further verification of this universally reported claim, you won’t find it anywhere I’ve looked.

Suppose there was a group that wanted to defame Islam and Muslims. Might it arrange for someone to commit an act of mayhem and claim responsiblity for it on the Internet, in the guise of a Muslim news agency? That’s a no less plausible explanation for this atrocity than the one offered unanimously by our embedded mass media, that fanatical Muslims were responsible. In fact, given the lack of trustworthy provenance for the published claim, coupled with the ease of falsification and the fact that there are many groups that habitually defame Islam, the possibility of a false claim seems even more likely.

People should ask what else, if anything, the media can tell readers about the provenance for the assertion that something called “Islamic State” carried out this attack, or even that such an entity exists at all.

Vandals for Social Justice

August 17th, 2017

I seem to be part of a small minority of peace-and-justice advocates who don’t want to remove offensive monuments. I’ve taken to the street in opposition to every war waged by the USA since 1970 (when I took off my military uniform for the last time), but I think the memorials should be left standing. Yes, I’m offended when I consider the corrupt legacy of Christopher Columbus, whose statue stands prominently here in Hartford,  but I’d rather suffer the offense than remove the statue and forget how we once venerated him.   

The embedded mass media tell us it was the removal of a statue of rebel general Robert E. Lee that sparked the exhibition of Nazi paraphernalia in Charlottesville last weekend. Maybe, but the event was billed as an assembly of right-wing groups from around the country. I watched some of the “protest,” and I kept seeing the same faces over and over. It looked like a minuscule group, maybe a few hundred. If that’s the far-right, it’s tiny and not worth the attention it got from the media. These same media mock us when we turn out a few thousand to resist war, but I didn’t hear a single reporter suggest that the turnout for this convention was pathetic.

I’m embarassed to be on the same side as the Nazis on the question of Lee’s statue. Lee was a good general, not because of his dedication to slavery or to killing but because of his ability to get his subordinates to carry out orders.   There haven’t been very many good generals, because you don’t rise in the military without kissing a lot of butt, and that selection process eliminates the most qualified leaders. Lee was as good a general as Grant, but Lee’s civilian commanders were deficient, while Grant’s eventually gained competence.  Plus Lee’s sponsors openly espoused a brutal, altogether American ethic that still infects us. His image reminds me of all that.

It’s true that most of these memorials went up during a renaissance of bigotry in the 1920’s, accompanied by a surge in Ku Klux Klan membership and a rash of racist mob violence, but that’s not a good reason to desecrate them. In fact, it may be the best reason to keep them. Once they’re gone, they can no longer remind us of the circumstances that motivated their creation. After all, a memorial is meant to keep an event in memory, not necessarily to celebrate the event.  Nobody celebrates the crucifixion of Jesus, but it’s depicted everywhere.

Somebody recorded the destruction of one monument. It was a statue of an anonymous rebel infantryman meant to honor the soldiers of the confederacy. I found the scene unpleasant. I’m probably not alone in thinking memorials to soldiers should be preserved, no matter which side they were on, in recognition of their devotion to duty and their willingness to sacrifice for each other. It’s not impossible to oppose war and honor soldiers. Most veterans respect pacifists, and many militantly oppose war. The mob scene I witnessed discredits me and the movement I advocate and puts me in mind of the vandals who blew up the Buddhist monoliths in Afghanistan. This crowd looked disturbingly similar to the ones you see in pictures of lynchings and cross-burnings.

Does anybody else think it’s odd that people should get all riled up over monuments to a war that ended a long time ago and express so little concern over wars that our leaders are waging today? I hope we don’t find it as easy to forget our legacy of violence and exploitation once we’ve removed all the memorials.

Water on the Rocks

July 25th, 2017

If I were an emir, I’d take a portion of the oil money and organize an expedition to the Antarctic to mine a hunk of the iceberg that broke away from the ice shelf a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t heard where that iceberg is right now, but some part of it–it’s as big as Delaware–must soon be floating in international waters where it could become fair game. 

Is water worth mining? At the high end of the market, where water is scarce,  a dollar buys about 50 gallons. An equal amount of crude oil, by comparison, costs about 50 dollars. Overhead is lower for water than for oil, however. The water is floating on the surface of the ocean, easy to recover, while the oil lies deep in the earth’s crust. The water just has to be melted to be put to use. The oil must be refined. The recovery, processing, transport and consumption of oil are polluting activities. Water, not so much. If the pipeline leaks, it’s not catastrophic.

How many tug boats would it take to tow an iceberg a thousand miles? That’s the distance from the Antarctic ice sheet where the berg broke off to any number of Southern Hemisphere ports with ready access to vast stretches of arid land. How many 747’s would you need to fly half the berg to Nevada and drop it, one piece at a time, into Lake Mead? If people were to develop a technology for moving large amounts of ice to dry land, they might become prepared in time to prevent the big splash that’s expected when pieces of land-bound polar glaciers drop into the ocean because of warming seas.

A pipeline covering the distance from the port of Capetown, South Africa, for example, to the heart of the Kalahari Desert could be built in a matter of months. Tow the berg in summer when the sun shines 24 hours a day at the South Pole, and you might be able to move it  with solar power. Dig a lakebed nearby the port to contain the ice while it melts and break it up for land transport or send it by pipeline to where it will do some good. Orange trees in the Kalahari and less sea level rise in Capetown sounds like a win-win proposition. Iceberg mining’s not going to prevent the extinction of human beings, but it might postpone it for a generation or two.