Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The whole world is watching

Americans were shocked this month to see pictures of police — looking like, in the deft phrase of Doktor Zoom, Keystone Stormtroopers — threatening citizens with machine guns and tanks. Our grandparents or great-grandparents would not have been shocked.

It was only the New Deal that, among many other civilizing gifts to the public, changed the role of police and militia from agents of labor control into, more or less, guardians of property and ordinary order. As late as 1932, it was nothing unusual to see a governor — a Democrat no less — turn a machine gun on farmers protesting low prices. This happened just a few miles from Ferguson, Missouri, in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
Imaginary cop

The idea that the cop is Officer Friendly would have seemed outlandish to our forebears. Police were agents of repression in service of the rich, and everybody understood that.

This was true of both formal and informal police. It was most obvious with the “paterollers” of the upper South, white men conscripted to serve a few nights each month as cavalry to terrorize blacks and catch runaway slaves.

But it was also the case with formal police forces, once these began to be enrolled. Every boss knew that if he could not keep his workers in line with low wages, payment in scrip, company stores, eviction, blacklists and strong-arm men, he could call the mayor or governor to have the police or the militia shoot them, or their families.

Police were kept on a payroll in order to have them available to brutalize workers. The rest of the time they filled their days serving eviction notices for landlords and collecting bribes from whorehouses.

There is no instance known to me when police or militia refused to act as the bosses’ enforcers. Legislators chipped in by passing laws that excluded workers from civil rights protections.

It was usual to ride down workers and their wives and children with cavalry, and not unusual to place cannon in the streets to intimidate them.

In the South, the sheriff was also expected to organize and lead lynch mobs.

If the local arms of law and disorder were inadequate, in exceptional circumstances the regular army was available. In fact, President Washington used regulars against protesters because that was the only force he had available. Later, the militia was usually sufficient.

Despite what it says in the 2nd Amendment to the Bill of Rights, the United States has never had — nor even attempted to create — a well-regulated militia. When used in war, the militia has performed poorly, usually running away (as recently as 1942); and in peace it has done nothing much beyond murdering women and children. Chivington’s Colorado “Volunteers” were a particularly noisome example.

Frank Murphy

Since the New Deal, however, bosses have not been able to call the governor and have him send out troops to shoot workers. The governor who changed this was Frank Murphy of Michigan, who called out his National Guard to protect workers who were under attack from police and mobs of company goons. It was the first time in American history that the militia were used to protect ordinary citizens instead of bosses. It was a startling change for the Michigan National Guard, which President Wilson had sent to Murmansk in 1919 to shoot Russian workers. The Russian workers fought back and over 500 Michigander militia were killed, most left behind in unmarked graves.

Murphy was punished by losing the next election, but his precedent has generally held. Nowadays, regular troops are even called out to uphold the rule of law, as President Eisenhower did at Little Rock; or sometimes when real disorders occur.

There is backsliding. Murphy’s adherence to lawful principles was shocking and unwelcome to the oppressing classes, who screamed, through their corrupt newspapers, for him to have the workers shot. At times, as at Kent State and Ferguson, large police or militia forces are deployed in order to create riots — as admitted, memorably, by Mayor Richard Daley who said his Chicago cops were there to create disorder. And the frightened right-wingers still want to go back to the good old days when Douglas MacArthur used panzers against unemployed veterans. Gov. Rick Perry has game wardens armed with machine guns in Texas.

But for the most part, the trajectory of policing over the past 70 years had been toward professionalism, training and enforcement of actual laws. The memorandum did not reach all districts, and racism is still in control in too many places, from the biggest to the smallest.

Still, the pictures of a masked cop training his rifle on women in the streets last week was shocking, because we do not know our own history. We have come that far. Or maybe we only thought we had.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Book Review 331: The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang

THE SILK ROAD JOURNEY WITH XUANZANG, by Sally Hovey Wriggins. 326 pages, illustrated. Westview paperback, $25

The destruction of the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan got the attention of and outraged the world in 2001. It also brought to some in the West the name of Xuanzang, famous for centuries in the East, who was the first traveler to describe the statues.

The concurrent and continuing destruction of idols in the Pacific by (mostly white) Christian missionaries is unknown to the wide world; and no doubt American Christians would not care if they did know. Some do know, and pay for it to happen.

Therein lies one difference between East and West. Xuanzang was a Buddhist missionary, one of the four most important in spreading Buddhism to China, but he was not about destroying idols. He spent 15 years collecting manuscripts and images of he Buddha in India, and back in China, with imperial favor, was involved in building pagodas, including the Big Wild Goose pagoda in Xian, still standing, to house the 500 horse loads of sacred writings he brought back.

In Sally Hovey Wriggins’s description, Xuanzang is a most attractive character, a man of intellect and of action, bold enough to defy emperors and savvy enough to negotiate with kings. Singleminded, both in his devotion to Buddhism (especially his patron Maitreya) and in his mission to find the best sources of Buddhist thought and to translate them into Chinese.

Though a partisan — he was Mahayana, and beyond that a fervent proselytizer of an Idealist school of philosophy, now extinct — he also brought back and translated other documents, both religious and secular.

His versions of the Heart and Diamond sutras are commonly known in Asia still.

Wriggins calls him the greatest traveler the world has known after ibn Battuta (a spot that might be disputed in favor of, among others, James Cook), but Battuta did not also contribute a mighty intellectual transfer that changed the future of hundreds of millions of people.

To put this in some context, Xuanyang arrived in India just as Charles Martel was turning back a major Arab raid into Gaul. Buddhism was more than a thousand years old and had been brought to China hundreds of years earlier; but it was in retreat in India, what are now Pakistan and Afghanistan and along the Silk Road.

Xuanzang recorded thousands of empty monasteries; all the kingdoms he visited have long since disappeared.

“The Silk Road Journey” is a bit of an odd book. The framework traces Xuanzang’s 10,000-mile journey from China to India and back, at each important node noticing the Buddhist artwork found there later by (mostly European) investigators, notably Aurel Stein. Important images are reproduced, though in small size and not in color. Along the way Wriggins inserts a small — very small — dose of Buddhist doctrine.

All in all, it makes for a readable small book, a good invitation to western-oriented readers to start familiarizing themselves with the historical personages familiar to Asians.

For Xuanzang in particular, this is made more difficult by the very large numbers of ways to spell his name in the Latin alphabet: a reader of several books who encountered Hwen Thsang, Yuan Chwang, Hieun Tsiang, Hsuan-Tsang and Xuanzang could be forgiven if he did not immediately recognize that they were all the same man. And there are other variants, too.

Witchcraft, wicked witchcraft

Look into my eyes. You can trust me

To the surprise of no one, the entrepreneurs have rushed forth with worthless Ebola fever cures and prophylactics. The Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization have issued a warning against them.

The  New York Times report is unfortunately reticent about who these evil capitalists are. The FDA is restricted in what it can say by idiot congresscritters who have made the supplement business a libertarian paradise -- anything goes. But the Times is not restricted.

The Verge does a better job, at least with one particular fraud, garcinia -- and also uses the Internet in useful ways that the Times has not caught up with:

There's nothing new about companies capitalizing on fear. For every health scare, there's a bogus cure, and for every existing illness there are a ton of supplements and sham products purported to treat or prevent it. Yet there’s something particularly sinister about promoting products that can "prevent" or "treat" Ebola
(Witch cures are not exclusive to capitalism; they are universal. But capitalism is unique in having generated a political philosophy that glorifies this kind of wickedness.)

Of course, nutritional supplements are not just worthless against Ebola. They are worthless period.  Irony piles on irony here.

The US government (and news outlets of a more respectable kind) tell us we can be confident Ebola will not break loose in a country with an advanced public health system, so the damage -- other than in lightening wallets -- to Americans from taking, say, colloidal silver, is small. Yet tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars are siphoned off to crooks each year without any significant warning campaign from the overseers of public health; in fact, with the active encouragement of some crooked elected officials.

The situation is different in West Africa. There the supplement sellers, some based in America, are active participants in what should be called what it is -- cold-blooded murder for money.

This episode also has a lesson for anyone concerned about controlling health care costs. To the extent that schemes to do this rely on a better-informed citizenry, that battle has already been lost. We have known this for a long time.

In the late '70s and early '80s there was a lot of talk about transferring responsibility to the potential patient. The company I worked for went so far as to give employees a $500 health care account we could use however we chose; for example, to pay for precautionary tests not  covered by our (not especially generous) company medical insurance.

Supposedly, we would cleverly direct resources to where they would do ourselves and our families the most good. But the money was just as readily spent on quacks and worthless nostrums as on real medical care, and the experiment was quickly given up.

(An amusing, but unanticipated result arose from the fact that the company, which had a lot of family members working for it,  decreed that the $500 was per family, not per employee; so that a husband-wife pair did not get $1,000. There were enough husband-wife pairs, and there was a particular husband who was so aggrieved by the supposed unfairness of this that his bitching became a serious morale problem. But, it was soon discovered, his wife was screwing one of the men she was reporting on, so he shut up and left the paper. But by then the "medical savings accounts" were dropped anyway.)

The notion that a better-informed citizenry will use medical resources more wisely still lingers, but it is obviously fatuous. And it is not a matter of better general education. My observation is that consumption of worthless supplements goes up, not down, with greater formal education, if only because better educated people have more income, and that stuff ain't cheap.

No doubt, too, fear of Ebola will goose ammunition sales. Everything does.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

They only come out at night

People make a fuss about the long hedge of night-blooming cereus at Punahou, but there is more (much more) and bigger (much bigger) all along Baldwin Ave. Unfortunately most of it is obscured by haole koa. But the flowers are at their fabulous peak right now.

Plus, you can eat them.

This one was growing on my mailbox.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Are libertarians really as stupid as they look?

Short answer: Yes.

In the Times, Paul Krugman has a column making fun of the libertarian position, taking off from the problems caused by algae blooms in Lake Erie. It's a good column but as often happens the comments are even more enlightening.

Someone called Baron95 from the 1%er reservation of Westport, Connecticut, had this riposte:

Dr. Krugman completely misses the libertarian argument and what is actually the root of the problem.

The issue is that the government owns Lake Erie, its tributaries and the water authority.

If Lake Erie was privately owned, people would have to pay the owners to discharge items that would reduce the value of that asset - in this case water quality.

Similarly, if the water authority was privately owned, it would have a contract with the owners of lake Erie for minimum water quality, and another with its consumers. All violations would have simple economic actions, and very quickly things would settle.

For example, the owner of Lake Erie would charge more if water coming in had too much phosphorous, and charge less if it had been pre-treated.

Dr. Krugman doesn't seem to get it. A private owner will always be the one that will protect the quality of its assets the most. That is why a home owner takes better care of its home than a tenant or a rental management company.

The source of the issue is that the US, State, Local governments own more than half the land in the US. All the biggest problems, be it Lake Erie or Detroit, invariably happen on Government owned properties.
Did you catch where Baron95 shot himself in the temple? Right at the start, where he wrote "The issue is that the government owns Lake Erie. . ."

See, Lake Erie already has an owner, interested in its good health. And how does an owner like that manage its property? I see a hand in the back of the audience. Yes, by regulation. Exactly the thing that libertarians want to prevent the owner from using.

I could stop there, but let's state the obvious: Privae owners do a lousy job of protecting their own assets and are actually destructive of everybody else's assets when they get the chance, which in a libertarian world would be all the time because -- ha! gotcha! there woudn't be any effective government.

Surely you wonder if RtO can back up this broadly brushed assertion. Why, yes, yes I can.

General Motors.

Or an even better example: Kodak.

Kodak was not deterred by lack of contracts with Polaroid from stealing Polaroid's patented technology; nor did any libertarians, so quick to scold, ever complain about Kodak's highhanded and lawless behavior.

It took a long while but Polaroid, which did object, finally got some justice by -- gasp! -- invoking the assistance of government (for which it paid through taxes). And so Kodak went bust.

Luckily Polaroid was a large corporation, able to afford  to spend millions and millions of dollars and wait over 15 years for satisfaction.

You may not be a large, powerful corporation. If your property rights are abused the way Polaroid's were, will the libertarians go to bat for you? Let's put it this way: They didn't go to bat for Polaroid.


Friday, August 8, 2014

For lack of a Kurdish state

It is too, too late, but I hope (but do not expect) that Americans are wishing they had looked more favorably on the national aspirations of the Kurds than they have.

RtO has called for America to support a free and independent Great Kurdistan ever since it began in 2008. So far as I know, no one else except Kurds agrees. But consider what would be happening now if there were even a Little Kurdistan.

Well, we cannot know. Perhaps if they had attained their community interests, they would not feel like offering refuge to Christians, Shia Musims or Yazidis. They would surely be of two minds about the Shia, who have been no friends of the Kurds.

Possibly their behavior over the past 11 years has been only cynical, judging all their maneuvers according to how they thought they would play in America. They have not gained much in a positive way, but at least they have mostly managed to present themselves as less bloodthirsty and crazy and incompetent than the others in their neighborhood.

In my view, their strategy has been to avoid antagonizing the American government too much while keeping their powder dry and waiting for an opening to be created by the well-known inability of Arabs to govern anything. Just weeks ago, it looked as if their time had come.

 The Baghdad government is not functioning, and turmoil in Syria, Israel, Gaza and Egypt was occupying attention. The Kurds began grabbing for territory and consolidating a government. By sending oil to market, they forced the US government to take seriously their claims (still muted in public) to be a de facto government with substantial claims to practical ability and legitimacy.

The US government hates that.

Then something interfered. Not something unforeseen; it was almost a given. ISIL grabbed the  heavy weapons that the US had improvidently given -- didn't we learn anything in Vietnam -- to the illegiitmate, corrupt, incapable and failing pseudo-state in Baghdad.

That those weapons would never be used by the mythical Iraq army was certain. Probably the Kurds expected to get them. Too cautious because of their wariness about antagonizing the US, they were beaten to the prize by the reckless ISIL.

In anything like an equal fight, the Pesh Merga (who, let us not forget are a kind of commies) will prevail against unmotivated Iraq conscripts and timeservers wearing the uniform of the illegitimate Baghdad regime. But ISIL is as devoted as the Kurds are, so the bigger battalions prevail.

But an armed, independent Kurdistan (even Little Kurdistan) could have been an effective counter to ISIL. Whereas the central government never could have been.

Here, it is useful to restate the fundamental error of the Obama foreign policy as regards the Koran Belt (which is completely different from the Bush errors but no less damaging).

Obama bought into the fantasies of David Kilcullen, making him his unconventional warfare adviser, that religion is not important in the political calculus of the Koran Belt.

Guess what. That was completely wrong. As I said in 2009:
The so-called Awakening in Anbar came about because (we are offered a choice of two) the local tribes objected to bids from the outside Muslims to have them for sons-in-law, or they objected to having their children baked alive.
One can see why they would object to either, but it is harder to see why, up to 2007, they thought it well to ally themselves with people who baked American children. Kilcullen never explains why we should want such people on our side now (or ever) or care what happens to them. Worse, he acknowledges that the alliance of the Anbar (and similar) sheikhs with the Coalition and/or the central (not national) government of Iraq may not endure. Count on it. The sheikhs were not fighting for a unified, free and democratic state. Nothing could be less congenial to them.
As it turns out, the sheikhs joined ISIL.

What else did anyone expect?

Kilcullen was Petraeus's adviser in the Surge. It is a small mercy that the idiot could not keep it zipped up and screwed himself out of the direction of the CIA.  But his replacement has been no better, and the US is still backing ridiculous and hopeless surrogates. Did we learn nothing in Vietnam? 

Ultimate gun nuttery

 Readers outside Hawaii may or may not be aware that 2 tropical storms are heading our way (one has already passed without much impact). So people have been getting ready. Some fill water jugs and buy batteries. And some . . .
I have now seen five posts about people stocking up on ammunition for the hurricanes.
I'm gonna plant my big opinionated flag here:
If you are preparing to shoot, maim, or intimidate people who may find themselves in trouble or lacking supplies instead of trying to figure out ways you can help (even a little) your neighbors and fellow islanders - you are doing it wrong.
No not storm prep. You are doing life wrong.
That's a Facebook post by my younger daughter who lives on Oahu.

 I think she needs to get better quality friends, but I also think we need to confiscate all the guns. Because there is no way to tell who can be trusted to have one.