Monday, August 29, 2016

Book Review 372: Over the Edge

OVER THE EDGE: Death in Grand Canyon, by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers. 586 pages. Puma paperback, $24.95

Chuck Jones wouldn’t have subjected even Wile E. Coyote to what Californian John Presley did to himself in 1968: while hiking a rough trail Presley slipped on loose gravel and, instead of just plotzing, ran out of the slip. He kept upright but could not stop as he approached the edge of a cliff.

At the last moment he wrapped his arms round a barrel cactus but it pulled out by the roots and both fell 50 feet. Presley died.

This seems to be more a case of hard luck than the rank stupidity and carelessness that characterize most of the 700 or so deaths of visitors to what Michael Ghiglieri and Thomas Myers, both experienced hikers and rescuers, call the most unforgiving place on earth.

That seems excessive. Actually, the toll over a century, while high, is not enormous, and over half the deaths came in crashes of helicopters and planes, including a 1956 collision of two airliners that was the worst peacetime civil aviation disaster to that date.

Despite spectacular opportunities, people fall or jump off the rim to their deaths only about once a year. Falls from below the rim, plus deaths from heart attacks in out-of-shape middle-aged men about double that toll.

Drownings are somewhat more common. Still, the body count doesn’t come close to what Hawaii enjoys.

Some things that might seem dangerous have so far failed to kill any visitors: animals and poisonous plants or running the rapids of the Colorado on commercial oared rowboats.  (Rafts and private trips have been more dangerous.)

Lee Whittlesey inaugurated the morbid book about deaths in our western parks with “Death in Yellowstone.” There are more ways to die in Yellowstone than in Grand Canyon (but not nearly as many as in Hawaii), and Whittlesey’s book is still the best of the genre. “Over the Edge,” while admirably complete, suffers from Ghiglieri’s purple prose and a somewhat phony public service justification.

Nobody really reads these books for deep insight into safety considerations. Walking into the desert without water is not a topic that requires deep reflection to avoid. Likewise, stepping over safety barriers to teeter on the edge of a cliff in order to get a dramatic photograph does not require 500 pages of explication in order to discern the risk.

(I never reviewed Whittlesey's book, but I did write about it in the context of deaths at Haleakala National Park.)

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The big kill

Although I said I wouldn’t have more to say about guns, reflecting on the book “Bloodlands” got me to thinking. “Bloodlands” didn’t add anything to my knowledge about gun deaths but it did inspire me to compare three facts I already knew, and that is the method implied by “restating the obvious”: We know more than we think we know.

The NKVD shot something over 1,000,000 people. The SS shot closer to 2,000,000.

Neither – nor even both combined – shot to death as many people as American gun nuts have.

Possibly the Second Amendment was a bad idea.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Mass guilt

Here is an episode I was not aware of but that resonates today: From Politico Magazine, a story about rounding up Muslims in America.

Read the whole thing.

It was a nice touch to name it Amt IV; shows historical sensitivity

Book Review 371: Bloodlands

BLOODLANDS: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder. 524 pages. Basic paperback, $19.99

“Bloodlands” has enjoyed wide, even extravagant praise, and in many ways it deserves it; but reading it is something like coming into a performance of “Hamlet” at the fifth act: There is plenty of gore, drama and treachery, but the discerning playgoer will suspect that something went on before.

And indeed it did.

However, for what it does cover, “Bloodlands” is outstanding. It is directed towards readers generally unfamiliar with eastern Europe and its history and so deliberately simple and direct. It also has a moral dimension, engaging (gently) with other commentators like Hannah Arendt. In the end, Snyder says, he is trying to restore the individuality of the people done to death – all 14,000,000 of them.

Memory and memorials that lump them all together are, he says, a trap, tending to confirm the Hitlerian or Stalinist vision of guilty groups. No, says Snyder, the liberal and humanist view must be that each was a life and each deserves (but cannot get) its own story.

He also emphasizes the interaction of the two dictatorships, which allowed or drove each to actions that neither would have taken on its own. Most dramatically, the German Final Solution was not originally eliminationist (in the sense that Daniel Goldhagen uses that term) but exclusionist: Hitler wanted to ship Jews away. Stalin and the USSR declined, in peace and in war, to become that place, so by late 1941 the policy of dliberate and total mass killing was resorted to.

This does not mean that Germans were driven to mass murder by outside forces. They had already resorted to it many times, against the mentally handicapped and against Jewish women and children in the territories of western USSR they had just invaded.

As it happened, the death toll was much lower than the German plan had forecast. Before the Holocaust there was the Ostplan, which envisaged the death (by starvation and overwork) of 30 million to 40 million people, mostly Slavs, to make room for German farmers. This is a spectacular number, although Snyder says he has used conservative counts and estimates for the various killing actions.

This is true. For example, he gives the death total for the construction of the White Sea Canal as around 600,000. A.J.P. Taylor thought it was 2 million.

The two regimes killed extravagantly but for different reasons. The Soviets generally went after class or national enemies (or imagined enemies), while the Germans went after subhuman races. There ended up being a great deal of overlap, and a man or woman could be murdered for any of several reasons – if reason is the correct term.

Snyder emphasizes that the killing regimes declared categories (kulak, wrecker, spy, partisan, Jew) that were often arbitrary and in any case applied carelessly.

Still, while it was dangerous to live anywhere in the Bloodlands (the area comprising Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and eastern Poland where both Hitlerian and Soviet governments were in power at various times from 1933 to 1945), it was probably most dangerous to be an educated Belarussian nationalist or a Polish communist – most of all to be a Jew.

The scale of death was unimaginable. More Poles died in the bombing of Warsaw than in the bombing of Dresden or in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, and that was a minor component of the total.

Snyder comes up with 14 million, divided about 10 million by Germans and 4 million by the Soviets, with another 8 million or 9 million deaths as a direct result of battle. These latter are not the subject of “Bloodlands,” which is focused on deliberate murders as a result of policy.

And because he limits himself to the area where the Germans and Soviets alternated control, he does not include the 300,000 Jews murdered in Croatia, an impressive total – 5% of the total victims of the Holocaust of the Jews by a government with far less than 5% of the power and capacity of Germany or the USSR.

And here is where I find “Bloodlands” lacking. The killing did not start in 1932-33; nothing that was done had not been done in the same place before.

The famine in Ukraine, in which 3 million starved while trainloads of grain moved to Odessa for export, had happened under the tsar, exactly the same way, in 1892.

For that matter, a million Irish had starved during the Potato Famine of the 1840s while food was shipped from Ireland to England.

The Ostplan, in which 30 million to 40 million Slavs were to be enslaved and worked to death to make room for racially superior farmers, was exactly what Americans had done in order to colonize what is now the state of Tennessee.

Snyder mentions that Hitler thought of the Ostplan – the use of starvation and slavery to build a prosperous colony – as no different from what the United States had done, and he was right.

Snyder does not ask, was there a difference? There was, but not as much as Americans would like to think, if they were capable of thinking about it.

However, it is doubtful Hitler had more than a vague notion of American history; and besides he had a closer model. From about 1200 the crusade of the Teutonic Knights against the pagan Prussians (and Livonians etc.) was exactly the Ostplan: extermination and enslavement of non-Germans to occupy their land.

It did not take the emergence of supposedly modernizing regimes to turn that part of the world into Bloodlands. They had been for nearly a millennium.

(Other parts of Europe were also Bloodlands and, proportionately, more dangerous to the targeted peoples than even Poland or Belarus in the ‘40s. Few know of the extermination of the Muslims by Christians in western Sicily but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.)

The scale of the killing was so monstrous that anyone confronting it has to ask, what caused it, what could prevent it in the future? In a thoughtful coda Snyder does not really say.

In this coda is the one point upon which I seriously disagree with him. People in the Bloodlands had limited choices. In the end, for many, the only possible fate was to be murdered. By collaborating, that fate might be postponed but not avoided.

Others collaborated for lesser but weighty reasons. Snyder says, “it is hard to find political collaboration with the Germans that is not related to a previous experience of Soviet rule.”  This is not true of Ukraine where, in the short period after the withdrawal of the kaiser’s armies there was an independent Ukrainian state. It had many difficulties to face but instead made a priority of murdering Jews. Offered a chance again to murder Jews, Ukrainians were eager to help. The same probably applies to some Lithuanians.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Where are the other hepatitis cases?

So, if Genki Sushi used imported scallops to spread hepatitis A in Honolulu, where are the other hepatitis cases?

Don't tell me Genki got all the bad shellfish.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Last word about guns

Well, maybe not the very last, because I have confidence that the gun nuts will devise new outrages, but for a while they have provided an unanswerable argument against the concept of "responsible gun owner."

There aren't any, but even if there are, it is impossible to identify them, as proven by the Punta Gorda murder:

Officer Lee Coel, 28, was put on administrative leave Tuesday as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigates why real ammunition was used by mistake at an event designed to bring police and the public together in the small Gulf Coast city of Punta Gorda.
Why, I wonder, does anyone assume live ammunition was used "by mistake"?

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

How to destroy a hospital

It has taken 20 years but the job is almost finished.
Looks nice in this light

I never said so in print, since in those days I was a reporter and supposed not to report my own opinions, but it was obvious from the start that the Hawaii Health Systems Corp. was going to be a disaster morally, operationally and financially.

(Besides, I was not the reporter who dealt with the hospital; most of the reporting – some of it very critical – was done by Claudine San Nicolas and Val Monson. I did interview Wes Lo, the administrator, and several physicians to satisfy myself that the problems I was identifying were the real ones. But those didn’t result in any reports by me.

(I limited my reporting to a column pointing out the obvious, that the West Side did not need its own hospital as long as the little red-and-white rolling hospitals were available to bring sick and injured people to Maui Memorial. The West Side is now getting a hospital of limited capacity, which will not succeed; and its emergency room will close soon enough for lack of physicians and nurses – and of patients. But that is another story.)

The history of HHSC on its website is thoroughly dishonest. Here is what the situation really was:

By the early ’90s, Oahu (like many metropoles) had too many hospital beds, and the Neighbor Islands too few. Of the 10 or so Neighbor Island hospitals, only Maui Memorial was covering expenses. It was throwing off large amounts of cash, which should have been reinvested in expansion; at the time it had 100 beds, many fewer than necessary.

Hawaii is an ohana; we wish all residents to have access to a minimum level of hospital care. Places like Lanai can never cover the costs; these should have been covered out of state general funds.

The Oahu-centric legislators did not (and still do not) give a damn about the Neighbor Islands, and they resented losing general funds they wanted for their own pet projects to support small hospitals in places like Waimea and Kula San. So they raided Maui Memorial by rolling it into a largely phony “corporation” to own, oversee and manage all the hospitals.

That was 20 years ago. Every year Maui memorial was plundered of around $25 million to subsidize losses at small hospitals. The total stolen approaches half a billion dollars.

Meantime, to expand Maui Memorial had to seek state subventions, which were grudgingly and inadequately given. So some services languished; obstetrics and mental health were probably hit the worst. Legislators find it easy to ignore babies and crazy people.

(Here we must follow a digression. As MMMC deteriorated, Dr. Ron Kwon and others decided the solution was to kill off the public hospital. This fight distracted political actors from the real issue. Kwon and his allies had no more interest in babies or crazy people than the legislators; their private hospital was not even going to pretend to offer metal health services.

(The private hospital, like the West Side hospital, was designed to provide more services to the already well-served and to starve services for people getting the least. Among the casualties of that fight was a fine public servant, Dr. David Sakamoto, churlishly sacrificed by Governor Linda Lingle.)

The moral point was obvious: the requirement to subsidize health delivery for Hawaii’s rural residents was an obligation of all, not just of the customers of Maui Memorial Medical  Center. (I do not believe that the old-timers would have stood for it, not Senator Mamoru Yamasaki and certainly not Governor John Burns. They understood ohana and collective responsibility and were opposed to using the fisc to provide luxuries to the rich.)

Maui Memorial stopped throwing off cash several years ago. This was the direct effect of the Legislature’s stupid decision in 1996.

Operationally, the effects are now becoming acute. The takeover by Kaiser is going to be at best a kludge, if it happens; and meantime the hospital cannot retain or recruit staff. There is a real possibility that the hospital could close. Parts of it already have, like the Molokini Unit for young mental patients.

Kaiser is losing $500,000 a week and will not wait forever for the governor, the Legislature and the unions to do what is pono. (And where is the lieutenant governor; many thought he had designs on the governorship. He is rapidly disqualifying himself from consideration as a serious person.)

And where is the business community? Do they think TripAdvisor and the other websites will ignore the collapse of health care delivery systems on the Valley Isle?