July 28, 2009


Sam Smith

A friend recently tweaked me for having supported John Edwards for president. Which raised a familiar question in my mind: why do the bad guys sometimes have the best politics?

After all, Edwards was the only major candidate who was pressing programs that might have eased, though not prevented, the fiscal crisis and the only one with serious ideas about what to do to set the country on a better economic course.

He was also a shmuck who couldn't control his shmuck.

Then there was Lyndon Johnson who once told Richard Burton he reckoned that between the two of them they had screwed more women than anyone. Yet it was LBJ, with the equally undisciplined Adam Clayton Powell Jr. who got more good legislation passed in less time that at any point in our history.

And there is the totally disintegrated Marion Barry, long time mayor of Washington, whose first term still was probably the best for the city since it got partial home rule in 1974.

To be sure, this is not typical of the ill behaved. For example, the Clintons never thought of doing anything significant to redeem themselves. The Clintons were instead the harbinger of the contemporary style of corrupt politician who felt no need to tithe to the people.

Neither does there seem to be any theoretical principle behind all this, save that it is far harder to find bad guys doing good things in politics any more.

Barry, for example, continues to stand out, because he is a holdover from an early age of corruption, in which the politician got little more than power and press, while his buddies and his constituents go the favors and the bucks. While Barry can't even pay his taxes, he is currently under attack for the money he got the city council to give organizations in his ward.

But one of the things I learned while covering Washington for many decades, however, is that the corruption hasn't disappeared, it just had a new name: economic development. As you watched the multimillion payoffs to developer campaign contributors, it made you long for a time when bribes were delivered in paper bags and a politician's misbegotten sex life was more entertaining than a losing baseball team brought to town at the voters' expense to please some pals of a mayor.

Because the media is so heavily into the business of enabling, rather than busting, political myths these days, we repeatedly are encouraged to fall for good looking, nice talking candidates who turn out to be far from what they promised. And we've been taught to accept the idea that the mere existence of a Clinton or Obama is a reasonable substitute for a good political agenda.

But life doesn't work that way. As William Riordan wrote of an earlier time:

"The Tammany district leader reaches out into the homes of his district, keeps watch not only on the men, but also on the women and children, knows their needs, their likes and dislikes, their troubles and their hopes, and places himself in a position to use his knowledge for the benefit of his organization and himself. Is it any wonder that scandals do not permanently disable Tammany and that it speedily recovers from what seems to be crushing defeat?"

Sure, it was corrupt. But we don't have much to be priggish about. The corruption of Watergate, Iran-Contra, Wall Street, Whitewater or the S&Ls fed no widows, found no jobs for the needy or, in the words of one Tammany leader, "grafted to the Republic" no newly arrived immigrants. At least Tammny's brand of corruption got down to the streets. Manipulation of the voter and corruption describe both Tammany and contemporary politics. The big difference is that in the former the voter could with greater regularity count on something in return.

Today, we are repeatedly disappointed by politicians who look and talk good and turn out quite the opposite. There's no better formula for detecting this than making personality take a far back seat to the politics. And bearing in mind that sometimes even bad guys do things better.

July 27, 2009


Sam Smith

America has a population of over 300 million. If the only people who really know how to run healthcare, revive the economy or teach our children are our president, the people he appoints and those who work for them, we are in deep trouble.

Even worse, Barack Obama and his appointees are not immortal, so there is every chance that some day they will be replaced by people of the likes of Richard Cheney or Alberto Gonzalez. If the powers that the Obama administration has assumed, or wants to assume, for itself are passed on to those of such ilk, we are in even deeper trouble.

Our founders, some of whom were possibly brighter than Obama's czars, czarinas, cabinet secretaries, and TARP ayatollahs, understood this. That's why they set up three supposed equal branches of government and thought they had reserved to the states and citizens those rights not enumerated in the Constitution.

Obama and his aides don't seem to understand this. Without even entering the matter of whether they are really as smart as they think they are, this purported benefit will last about seven years at best, which is - by way of example - three years short of when we'll know whether Obama's healthcare plan costs what he claims.

There is an underlying theme of concentration of power in Obama's economic, health and education plans. In more than a few cases, the concentration is unprecedented, witness the attempt to dismantle local control of public education. The implicit - albeit unspoken - justification for these changes is that those making them are among the smartest people in our society and therefore will best look after our interests.

I think about this every time I drive the five miles of road between my house and downtown Freeport, Maine. I have never seen the road in such lousy condition and I keep asking myself, where's the stimulus when you need it? All over the state, roads are hurting and though we have spent more money in less time to get the national economy going, unemployment is at near record levels while such basic and once simple projects seem beyond the capacity of Washington to do anything about.

One of the reasons is that while Freeport is shovel ready, Barack Obama isn't. His administration has set up a maze of bureaucratic and technocratic obstacles to getting money to where it can make a difference in a short period - thanks in no small part to the assumption that the federal government is our best guardian of money and quality.

Of course, one need to look no further than the Pentagon or the Department of Housing & Urban Development to know that this isn't true.
In fact, when it comes to money, the feds have always done best moving it from one place to another - i.e. Social Security and Medicare or to the state and local level. There will be inefficiency and corruption at both levels, but they are usually less costly and easier to spot.

One of the reasons we don't realize this - and thus casually lump a bridge to nowhere into the same category as some congress members' bill to help fund a local arts center - is because of the liberal hostility towards devolution.

This didn't used to be the case. The New Deal and Great Society didn't have this hang-up and the left in the 1960s had a strong devolutionary bent. But in more recent years there has been a growing liberal disdain for decisions made at the state and local level.

Part of this, I suspect, has to do with liberalism become an increasingly upscale politics with more of its constituency educated to believe in the exceptionalism of their education. A sort of edocracy has developed, where it is assumed that if you have the right people and the right research, democracy just doesn't matter than much any more.

This view is reflected in the prevailing assumption that schooling to the test is the best way educate our young. Missing from this, among other things, are subjects not often taught like working well with others, gaining consensus, and melding sources of information. How often, for example, does an economist ever listen to a farmer?

And so the road I travel remains unusually bumpy and cracked. If anyone in Washington had asked me, I would have said, just send them the money and worry about something else, like getting out of stupid wars.

And I might point them to an article I did for the Washington Post 22 years ago about how Freeport handles the snow compared to nation's capital. In it I noted


Al Thompson is superintendent of roads in Freeport, Maine, with a population about one percent of that of the District. But what Maine lacks in people, it makes up in roads, so Al Thompson has about 12 percent of Washington's asphalt mileage to look after.

Now Al doesn't have anything like the equivalent of Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues in his charge, and the local politicians tend to realize that nature often is impervious to memos, directives and policy guidelines. On the other hand, he works without the benefit of Snow Command Centers, Computerized Cancellation Centers and Codes Yellow. What he does have is five trucks with 12-foot dustpans and 11-foot wings.

How long does it take his trucks to cover 130 miles? Says Al: "An hour and a half, an hour and three-quarters." Then it takes another three hours for a second "cleanup" trip.

To put it in D.C. terms, that would mean, with the number of vehicles we've got (if properly equipped), you theoretically could sweep through the city in a couple of hours. Since it is clear our trucks are outmoded and not properly equipped, let's look at it another way: 25 good snow plows could, using the Maine standard, run through every street in the city in nine hours.

I picked 25 because that's the number of snowplows D.C. gave the National Guard back in 1980 to help in emergencies but which the Pentagon said it couldn't use because of liability problems. The trucks never were given back and disappeared from sight until Thursday, when it was announced that the National Guard would be using 25 plows to help keep D.C. clear.

Now, before someone at the District Building picks up the phone to tell The Post about "complex urban problems," let me tell you about George Flaherty. He's director of parks and public works for Portland, Maine. Portland is about one-tenth the size of D.C. but has nearly 30 percent of its street mileage. He uses about a quarter of D.C.'s equipment and expects to have the job done in 8 to 10 hours. . .

Here are some figures that will give you a rough idea of the costs of closing down D.C. for a day: the D.C. government spends $3 million a day on its payroll; the federal government spends close to $20 million a day for its D.C. payroll; private businesses spend another $30 million. What did D.C. budget for snow removal? Just under $1 million. Calculate the odds yourself.


Now Al Thompson has retired as highway director, but I still suspect his successor and people like him all over the country have a better handle on their roads than the president's Small Town Road Czar or whoever is keeping the money from coming this way.

It might help if the Obama people would trade in a few of their pie charts for some humble pie and accept the idea that in this fair land are many who know more about some things than they do, give them some money to help them do it, and then step back and enjoy the resulting success instead of just still more problems.

July 24, 2009


Sam Smith

Whenever anything like the Gates incident arises, we spend an inordinate amount of time assessing blame and hardly any discussing remedies.

Calling someone a racist doesn't cure anything. In fact, racism is normal. That isn't to say that it's nice, pretty, or desirable. Only that suspicion, distrust, and distaste for outsiders is a deeply human trait. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote that "all primitive tribes agree in recognizing [a] category of the outsiders, those who are not only outside the provisions of the moral code which holds within the limits of one's own people, but who are summarily denied a place anywhere in the human scheme. A great number of the tribal names in common use . . . are only their native terms for 'the human beings,' that is, themselves. Outside of the closed group there are no human beings."

Many attempts to eradicate racism from our society have been based on the opposite notion -- that those who harbor prejudice towards others are abnormal and social deviants. Further, we often describe these "deviants" only in terms of their overt antipathies -- they are "anti-Semitic" or guilty of "hate." In fact, once you have determined yourself to be human and others less so, you need not hate them any more than you need despise the fish you eat for dinner. This is why those who participate in genocide can do so with such calm -- they have defined their targets as outside of humanity.

What if, instead, we were to start with the unhappy truth that humans have always had a hard time dealing with other peoples, and that much ethnic and sexual antagonism stems not from hate so much as from cultural ignorance and narcissism? Then our repertoire of solutions might tilt more towards education and mediation and away from being self-righteous multi-cultural missionaries converting yahoos in the wilds of the soul. We could turn towards something more akin to what Andrew Young once described as a sense of "no fault justice." We might begin to consider seriously Martin Luther King's admonition to his colleagues that among their dreams should include that someday their enemies would be their friends.

Even if racism played a major role in the Gates incident, it probably wasn't the only factor. For example, one reader asks if there wasn't the smell of a class divide in the confrontation between a Cambridge cop and Harvard professor, with the white guy on the lower end of the economic ladder.

The most common form of police misbehavior is bullying. The target need only be someone who is perceived as vulnerable, with blacks, gays and young teens all in the pool. Blacks are extremely common victims but they are far from the only ones.

As our policing has increasingly moved to a military model and with cops often being from the lower economic and social strata, the bullying approach has tremendous appeal. One's size and blanket of weaponry reorganize one's place in society and are tempting to use in full force.

Unfortunately, neither scolding nor paper regulations have much effect. If the officer in the Gates case were to be punished, it would probably just increase the hostility of other officers towards those perceived as weak and who have no access to the national media.

Having been briefly a federal law enforcement officer while in the Coast Guard and having covered the ethnically divided town of DC for many decades, this is a matter that has long fascinated me. If you strip away the cliches and watch actual behavior, you start to see things easy to pas unnoticed.

For example, the DC police department changed from having only one top level black officer and with white cops refusing to share their cars with black officers to a department run by a series of black chiefs. On average these chiefs did a better job than the white ones (including the current white woman) in part because they had an instinctive feel for creating better ethnic relations and the officers under their command soon learned the sort of behavior that was expected. I suspect, however, that it made another difference: it increased the respect black officers had for themselves and with which white officers treated black citizens.

Sometimes things slipped back, as when a bunch of white West Virginia officers were hired to overcome a shortage on the force. It wasn't that the West Virginia officers couldn't have been better; it was just that at the time no one really cared that much.

It is part of the liberal canon that wrong thinking people stay that way. In fact, people tend to behave the way they are trained to behave and the way those leading them tell them to behave.

Obviously, there will be exceptions but in a normal community these people become social rogues rather than the norm.

So the first way to get a good police officer is to have good lieutenants, captains and chiefs.

The second necessity, and one that is massively ignored, is good and continuous training and the self respect that it encourages.

It shouldn't stop at the police academy. If it does you end up with a cable TV version of law enforcement in which the cop drifts easily into the role of a bully.

I have argued for decades that every police precinct house and headquarters should have a lawyer - given the rank of captain or above - to be on hand to train the force, mediate conflicts and help officers do their job better.

I watch this in action at a Coast Guard district headquarters where I was stationed. A Lieutenant Commander was the legal officer, but he was much more. Enlisted personnel such as boarding officers would casually drop by his office to discuss problems they had encountered. He was right on top of every little legal issue that arose and he had the autonomy to act based on legal wisdom and not the district commander's say so.

Only a tiny number of police officers in this country have any access - let alone easy access - to good legal advice. Yet they are supposed to be first government officials enforcing the law. It is bizarre, dangerous and it doesn't work.

There would be a further advantage to such an approach. As police officers see themselves as well educated agents of our system of law, they would start to have more respect for themselves and, as a result, treat others better.

But as long we treat cops as society's hired bullies, we shouldn't be surprised by some of the results.

July 14, 2009


Sam Smith

Like any good lawyer, Sonia Sotomayor can take either side of a case - even when it's about something she said. Thus she excused her remark that "a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion" than a white male as a play on words that fell flat. She added: "It was bad because it left an impression that I believed that life experiences commanded a result in a case, but that's clearly not what I do as a judge."

To a writer who is not a lawyer this is pure crap. On the other hand, it means she will get along quite well in Washington because as a wise lawyer with the richness of her experiences she knows how to speak in tongues.

After all, any potential justice who can get headlines around the country because she claims to believe in "fidelity to the law" doesn't have much to worry about. There was a happier time when that was taken for granted.

The truth is that Sotomayer - except for her ethnicity - is an absolutely mundane, even boring, centrist judge from whom no surprises should be expected. Like her appointer, she has been elevated to sanctified status simply because the elite - many decades late - decided it was okay to have someone of her background in such a high position. And she seemed safe.

She has thus benefited from a form of atomized affirmative action that fools a lot of people into thinking there's been a real change.

But as the cops say, that's it, folks. You can leave now. Clear the area. There's no story here.

July 13, 2009


Sam Smith

Barack Obama has promised a major, moderate health plan.

Which is like urging climactic abstinence.

Real moderates don't do major things. They fiddle with stuff, fix a part of it, or change a number or two.

In fact, whatever Obama finally comes up with will probably be the most radical and bizarrely complicated health plan we've ever seen. Meanwhile, the rest of the political world is divided into two decidedly non-radical camps: conservatives who don't want to do anything and independent progressives who favor a well tested public system strange in the western world only to Americans.

Then there is Obama's medical records act, a massive example of database overkill, that makes every patient in America vulnerable to snooping by law enforcement, employers and insurance companies. And the remarkable illusion that the voters want Obama to decide when they should die. Yes, his administration has seriously argued that whether a patient continues to receive medical care should be left to a government organized system of doctors, scientists and ethicists rather than to individual doctors, the patient and their families.

A true moderate would suggest something like lowering the Medicare age to 55, something that would keep us headed in the right direction even if falling far short of what many would like, something that would not badly twist health policy into programs that nobody actually wants and which will take at least another decade to unravel politically.

Similarly, a true moderate might have suggested that revenue sharing - passing federal funds down to the state and local level with their use to be decided there - should be a major part of a stimulus package. There would be few faster ways to get things going. Instead we find programs that are physically shovel ready but not bureaucratically pencil ready because of restrictions applied by Washington. The Obama people say this will make it all more transparent and honest. In fact, there is no evidence that the federal government is any less prone to corruption, inefficiency and favoritism than governors or mayors.

But Obama is not a true moderate. Nor is he an ideologue. He is rather representative of a class of autocratic professional technocrats that has increasingly gained power in America, creating a constantly mutating adhocracy while proportionally adding to the country's woes. He is a moderate extremist, a member of the radical center.

It is a group long on education and short on wisdom and judgment. A 19th century writer decribed people like this as having been educated beyond their intellect. The skills of this class center around matters like the law or economics, formerly considered professions supportive, but not determinative, of things that others did.

It's not a matter of someone's training but the role it plays in their thought and action. One might easily be a good politician and a lawyer, but not a good politician simply because one was a lawyer. In fact, one study found that from 1780 to 1930, two thirds of the senators and about half of the House of Representatives were lawyers. Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were both lawyers but that did not define their place in history.

The difference has been the change of the role of the law in society. The law has moved from being a necessary tool to help us organize our society and restrain its excesses to becoming a major obsession - witnessed by the fact that we have passed more laws since 1976 than we did in our first two centuries.

Key to this has been law schools that - at least before the fiscal crisis - were churning out 40,000 new attorneys a year. Jim Barlow, a former columnist of the Houston Chronicle, compares it to locusts: "The locust is a fairly benign form of grasshopper until we get too many of them. Then they swarm, eating their weight every day and devouring the countryside."

It is easy to the see whatever is happening around us as a traditional norm, especially when scholars and media don't bother to follow the changes. But a few examples suggest the trend:

- Since 1996 the number of employees in private legal services in Washington has risen almost 30% while those in publishing & broadcasting have declined and employment in the retail trade has remained constant. There are twice as many people in the capital city's legal services industry as in retail trade or janitorial services. By contrast, legal services jobs nationally are a quarter of those in retail sales and a half those in janitorial services.

- One of the major tasks of the legal profession is to lobby Congress and the administration on behalf of major corporations. William Greider reported that in 1970 only a handful of Fortune 500 companies had public affairs offices in Washington; by 1980, 80% did.

And it's just not the law. Business schools have been a major culprit. In the 1950s America turned out less than 5,000 MBAs a year; by 2005 this number had soared to 142,000. In seven years we could produce a million MBAs and still face huge trade and budget deficits, a disappearing auto industry, one of our most costly and disastrous wars, a growing division between rich and poor, a constantly projected inability to care for our ill or elderly and a near depression lurking just around the corner.

Back in the 1980s, when I was doing a magazine story on the National Air & Space Museum, I was surprised to discover that it was the only contemporary structure in federal Washington to come in on time and under budget. One reasons seems to have been that it was built not by conventional Washington bureaucrats but by engineers who had a substantially different approach to getting things done. How many engineers were consulted by the White House and the Congress before approving the stimulus package?

Everywhere you look in government these days a gap keeps appearing between the work that is supposed to be happening, what is actually happening and who has been assigned to see that it happens.

This was a problem once mainly limited to a few political bonus enclaves such as those ambassadorships based on the money one gave to a president's campaign.

But since the 1980s, pragmatically deficient MBAs have taken over American business, lawyers and economists have taken over politics, pseudo CEOs have taken over school systems and over-professionalized journalists have taken over the media. Further, spin has replaced reality and action at ever level.

We have assigned a wealth of practical tasks to those who think in abstractions, speak in cliches, use paperwork as a pacifier, and convert morality, policies and human aspiration into a bunch of numbers or legal restrictions. Perhaps most sadly - and most dangerously - they have learned their values from sources far removed from the thinking of those philosophers, writers and politicians who gave America its greatest moments.

With this shift, the country has been changing from being a democracy into being just another corporation - and one that its leaders feel entitled to run in the manner of an executive rather than as an elected representative of the people.

Barack Obama is not the worst, merely the most famous, of the current lot.
He has demonstrated few practical skills, his social intelligence fades once out eyesight of a teleprompter, and he has little interest in true democratic discourse other than at carefully managed town meetings. He sees himself as America's boss, leaving everyone - from a constitutionally equal Congress to the citizens who elected him - in the implicit role of consumer or staff.

Obama is paraded as among the best and the brightest but this ignores two problems:

- Intelligence is much like muscle. It is an undeniable asset but can be used for either good or evil. Possessing intelligence does not grant you wisdom, morality or the ability to play well with others. It does not tell you how to fix something that is broken or other skills based on practical experience. And like muscle, it easily raises the temptation to use its force as a substitute for such other skills.

- The best and the brightest brought us the Vietnam, environmental, Mid East and economic disasters. Joseph Califano recently wrote fawningly that the recently departed Robert McNamara was "known for his extraordinary intelligence." But, as 58,000 American (and many more Vietnamese) victims of that extraordinary intelligence discovered, it also did extraordinary evil.

Obama hasn't come close to being as bad as McNamara but he belongs to a similar culture that is characterized by autocratic values, indifference to constitutional and democratic concerns, excessive reliance on procedures and systems as a false guarantee of desired results, and a technocratic obsession in data assessment as a substitute for wise observation of what's really going on.

And he has relied heavily on financial advisers who form a collective McNamara of the fiscal collapse; as in Vietnam, the solution is being sought by those who created the problem in the first place.

There is further, as suggested here before, a sort of elite Asperger's Syndrome at work in Washington, with a disconnect between the information piled inside the capital's collective brain and the reality of the world outside it.

Thus one can spend more money on a stimulus in less time than at any point in American history and still have the unemployment rate go up 25% in under six months. By comparison, in FDR's first year, the unemployment rate declined nearly 14%.

One can launch an economic rescue program that saves huge banks but leaves ordinary homeowners and tenants out in the cold. You can claim to be ending the war in Iraq even as you leave a large military there and send more troops to Afghanistan. Or you can reorganize education by demoralizing teachers, replacing learning with tests, and putting corporate figures in charge of school systems - and then calling it reform.

Meanwhile our leaders give themselves ever more power even as that power serves ever less purpose.

All this is quite deceiving to the public because, though the results may be absurd, the manner, the language and methods are seemingly moderate - concealing the dangerous extremism of the modern American center.

This is not an ideological problem; it is a class and cultural one. And Obama is merely the most visible reflection and most prominent beneficiary of the day.

MSNBC and Fox News would have you believe there is a great political battle going on; in truth it is more like sibling rivalry, fighting over who gets the window seat in the broken down, low gas mileage car that America has become.

And because cultural divides are far more difficult to cross than political ones, America will have a terrible time overcoming this one. It would be wondrous if the House of Representatives could replace its engorgement of attorneys with more teachers, chemists, small business owners, social workers, engineers, labor leaders and artists, but it's not likely. The best and the brightest know one thing extremely well: how to hold on to their power, whatever its cost to the rest of the country.

July 08, 2009


Sam Smith

I was on my way home the other evening and had just passed through the woods when I found my way blocked by two porcupines in the middle of the road, sitting on their hind legs and embracing each other. I carelessly leapt to the conclusion that this was how porcupines dealt with the peculiar problem posed to reproductive recreation by a plethora of quills surrounding one's target orifice. Perhaps all one needed was a slight readjustment in the location of the respective organs.

Then my mind swept back to an evening when I thought I would explain sex to one of my then little sons using the less provocative example of a non-human. The only problem was, thanks to the book we were reading together at the time, I chose a walrus as my example. No sooner had I started then I realized that I had no idea how walruses had sex and that, frankly, the idea seemed absurd.

But for walruses at least, it was mainly a problem of excessive blubber that appeared to interfere with the enjoyment - not an arsenal of quills situated like a ring of ABMs around the aperture of bliss.

My flashback was interrupted by the porcupines, one of which departed to the weeds at the edge of the road while the other boldly approached my immobile car as if it were going to chastise me for having spoiled the evening. The creature then stopped, turned 180 degrees, and raised its posterior slightly as if to say, "You come any closer, you're going to need a new tire."

I got the message and sat quietly until the porcupine decided it was all right to leave.

Safely at home, I googled for some information on what I had just seen and, sure enough, the ever reliable Cecil Adams of Straight Dope set me straight:

|||| An account of porcupine romance (in North American Porcupine, Uldis Roze, 1989) does begin this way: "Somewhere ahead, a porcupine is screaming." However, it's not what you think. The screaming porcupine is a female letting an ardent male know she's not in the mood. Male porcupines may give vent to the occasional scream as well, but it's from frustration, not pain: the female is only sexually receptive 8-12 hours per year.

Porcupine sex is not the exercise in S&M you might imagine but it does have its kinky aspects. I quote from Roze: 'Perhaps the strangest aspect of the interaction is male urine-hosing of the female. The male approaches on his hind legs and tail, grunting in a low tone. His penis springs erect. He then becomes a urine cannon, squirting high-pressure jets of urine at the female. Everything suggests the urine is fired by ejaculation, not released by normal bladder pressure. . . In less than a minute, a female may be thoroughly wetted from nose to tail."

So much for foreplay. If the female decides now is the time, she hoists up her rump a bit and raises her tail, the underside of which is quill-less, and curves it up over her back, covering the quills thereon and exposing her genitalia. The male then approaches in a gingerly manner from the rear, walking on his hind legs and taking care to touch nothing with his forepaws but the safe part of the tail. . . The act lasts 2-5 minutes and may be repeated several times during the half-day window of opportunity. . .

The real problem for a male porcupine is not getting intimate with the female but surviving the bar fights with his male rivals beforehand. Researcher Roze reports coming upon the scene of an interporcupine slugfest where three males had fought it out for the favors of one female. The ground was littered with nearly 1,500 quills and a few more could be seen in the nose of the apparent victor. ||||

Elsewhere, I learned that the few critical hours of porcupinial reproduction typically occur in November and December, further suggesting that what I had spotted had been convivial but not consummated. Still, even the sight of two porcupines hugging was a cheerful reminder of how many possibilities in this world we haven't even imagined.

July 01, 2009


Sam Smith

It used to be easy to tell the enemy. All you had to do was to check their uniforms and nationality. But after 9/11 it became a lot more difficult. We started fighting a war against an attitude and a concept instead of a country. How do you invade terror? if the identifying mark of a terrorist is hatred of America how can you tell when you've won? Who signs the surrender papers?

Of course, we did have some experience in this. We had already declared war on all sorts of things: cancer, drugs, pants slung too low on the hips - none of which had borders, a government or tanks.

Our metaphors had already spun out of control.

And few counted the bodies.

For example, prior to the World Trade Center attack, Al Qaeda was reported to have killed something less than 500 people. Another 3,000 were killed on 9/11. To retaliate it has so far cost us about 4,000 dead troops in Iraq and another 700 in Afghanistan.

Of course there have been others involved, such as innocent Iraqis and Afghans. The estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths range from around 100,000 (based only on those deaths reported in the media) to the medical journal Lancet's 2006 estimate of 600,000 and the one million listed by Opinion Research in 2007. The civilian Afghan tally is far more modest - somewhere around 8,000 - but still more than double the number killed in 2001.

Dylan Thomas noted, "After the first death there is no other." But how can we become so incensed at the deaths of 3,000 innocent Americans and yet feel justified in taking the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people who just happened to be in our way as we futilely sought out bin Ladin and his small band of guerillas?

How can we not even question it? Or not mention it in the media?

And now it's gotten worse. Wall Street the victim has turned into Wall Street the perp.

According to the director of the World Health Organization some 200,000-400,000 women and children can be expected to die each year as a result of the fiscal collapse. And UN officials have added another hundred million to the ranks of the global hungry due to the crisis.

In other words, Wall Street will kill a hundred times as many women and children as were killed when it came under attack and it hardly makes the news.

We are infuriated by Bernie Madoff for stealing from the rich, but pay virtually no attention to what is going on to ordinary citizens around the world as a result of conventional fiscal greed of the past few decades.

We may assume that, unlike bin Laden or Richard Cheney, the traders and manipulators acted without malice aforethought. They were, after all, only thinking only of themselves.

But if they had been driving a car instead of trading a derivative, it would be a criminal offense called negligent manslaughter. We don't have such a crime in markets or politics.

And so the president listens to fiscal advisers who are treated as wise men rather than as fiscal terrorists and the media respectfully quotes them with not one sign that they were among those who helped Wall Street do to the world what Bernie Madoff did to his clients and in a far more deadly fashion than even bin Laden.

Meanwhile a malevolent man who thought he could bring America down by attacking Wall Street sits somewhere in the mountains of Pakistan, watching as his intended victim do his work for him.