Tuesday, 23 December 2014

We cops are the victims, others have themselves to blame

The killing of two police officers last weekend apparently chosen at random is a classic illustration of the reactionary nature of terrorism. A movement was growing steadily among people of good will to rein in police excesses as embodied in the notorious Eric Garner snuff film. Demonstrations were massive, the coalition broad, and sympathy deep.

The only off-key notes were those emanating from the cops-can-do-no-wrong police union head and the predictably tone-deaf Murdoch paper, the Post. Those voices sounded shrill and clueless as the pundits and tabloids consistently made excuses for the Michael Brown killing, blamed the victims, defended the cops and tried to smear the citizens massed in protest.

Now, the cold-blooded murders of cops minding their own business has put Mayor de Blasio, who has tried to act reasonably and keep the police from making things worse, on the defensive as if his mild statements were somehow encouraging cop assassins (versus, for example, the equally plausible—or implausible—hypothesis that the many provocative defenders of Eric Garner’s killers did so). The whole right-wing echo chamber has exploded with convenient outrage while the police union chief and his Lynch-mob have issued direct threats, such as declaring a state of “war” (against the people of New York as the enemy, presumably) and suggesting that they need not obey civilian authority, a posture that author Greg Grandin calls a “cop coup”.

De Blasio has never been popular with a certain demographic in New York, and personally I suspect a large part of the motive is the fact that he’s married to a black woman and has mixed-race children. When he says he warns his black teenager about dealings with the cops, he’s only saying what every black family already knows. But the white suburbanites of Staten Island and Queens don’t want to believe the cops who privilege them and target minority males do anything wrong—ever. Maybe making them hear it anyway is divisive—who knows?

Before this latest twist, thousands of people were beginning to see the need for a major cultural shift in how we organize and monitor policing, a struggle that goes back to the years-long fight against stop & frisk that was itself instrumental in de Blasio’s election. The effort was making steady gains, despite the steady accumulation of more tragic incidents. Race was suddenly back on the agenda as an unresolved social dilemma. At the cinema recently, I was struck by how many new films openly probe black-white issues, like Dear White People, the Chris Rock film, Selma and several others not directly focused on race.

Although De Blasio had his detractors before the weekend murders, he also had the back of an important middle-ground sector of the population, usually sympathetic to the police but aware that things are not right here. Mike Lupica, the Daily News columnist who is a sort of weathervane for them, criticized the mayor but saved some ammo for Lynch as well, arguing that the force needs to weed out the minority of loose-cannon cops who can’t control themselves.

Now, Lupica has lined up behind the cops and puts the blame on the mayor. The atmosphere is suddenly less that of a political fight playing out on the streets than a budding war with unpredictable consequences. The rhetoric coming from the cops is scary: according to them, the protesters who object to excessive police violence are, like de Blasio, guilty of their colleagues’ murders. If the mayor doesn’t take a tougher stand against these insults, retaliation is almost a given, sooner or later. The tidal wave of self-righteousness in the cops’ language is an eerie pre-echo of how they’ll justify the next ‘incident’.

Meanwhile, de Blasio gets it exactly wrong on calling for people not to protest police violence for a while, a suggestion that feeds right in to the cop-land fantasy that people who object to their violent acts want them dead. Furthermore, the attempt to legalize mass arrests of people exercising their constitutional right to assemble is an appalling cave-in to the worst instincts.

One can sympathize with de Blasio’s dilemma in this troubling moment, but it’s pretty clear that trying to make nice with the cops union and play Mr Reasonable is going to get him nowhere. I’d like to see some measured firmness from him, a reply to Lynch reminding him that he’s talking to his boss, i.e., the people’s elected representative, whether he likes it or not, and a further reminder to the entire force that the weekend ambush does not give them permission to take revenge. Six years of watching Obama try to find a friend among the GOP should be enough of a lesson for anyone.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Torture 2 - Did it "work"?

An unedifying debate that emerged after the 9/11 attack is summarized as the “ticking time-bomb” scenario. This fantasy thought experiment was and continues to be very popular as an opportunity to turn the question of whether or not we should torture people into a philosophical game.

The game should never have been played. The game should not be played now. The game itself is the trick. Do not play the game.

In the HIV prevention and care service industry that I had a seminal role in creating in a faraway corner of the world, we quickly became familiar with a phenomenon known as the “worried well”. This is a patient or pre-patient type known to all medical professionals: the obsessive individual who reads about a disease and is seized with irrational fear of having it or someday acquiring it. While questions about casual contagion are often common among people who have never heard the facts about HIV (or any other disease, for that matter), the vast majority accepts the science and move on. Even if they feel slightly squeamish about things they know are not dangerous, they recognize that their reaction makes no sense, that it is their own problem and that they have to deal with it themselves.

The OCD caller or visitor, however, does not let go of his (rarely her) fear. He wants to know the exact percentage of possibility that a given sex act or contact with a bodily fluid will produce the 1 in a million transmission that he heard of somewhere. He endlessly repeats real or imagined scenarios in which some weird combination of fluke events might have given him the infection or might do so in the future. I’ve counseled clients who brought along a sheaf of exams that they had insisted on getting from doctors or labs, none of which convinced them that the virus (that they could not possibly have acquired in any case) was not in their blood.

The only way to handle these suffering neurotics was to refuse to discuss HIV risk with them further. We referred them to psychiatric care, and if they refused to take the hint, we showed them the door since we could do nothing more for them.

The ticking time-bomb debate functioned in exactly the same way for those deeply in the grip of their fears of the unknown, given the huge surprise and sudden sense of vulnerability that the Twin Towers attack generated among the American public. Maybe if we could just find the guys planning to carry out the next assault and torture the facts out of them in time, we would keep ourselves safe from something like this happening to our own families. The fact that they are more likely to be hit by lightning or be gored to death by an escaped musk ox means nothing.

The unlikeliness of the hypothetical situations proposed was irrelevant to the role of the time-bomb scene (since played out in innumerable TV suspense shows) to soothe the minds of the fearful and reinforce their sense that law enforcement would Keep Them Safe. Like the obsessive neurasthenic, viewing the Jack Bauers torture the facts out of a series of nasty Mohammeds or Igors confirmed to frightened middle America that keeping that torture option open was not just understandable but essential. Many police and spy agency shows (e.g., NCIS) now routinely threaten or imply that torture will be used to get the facts out of recalcitrant subjects, who promptly confess. Torture is thus routinized.

I was sad to see in the post 9/11 period how the time-bomb debate elbowed its way even into the pages of The Nation and other quasi-liberaloid or ‘centrist’ venues. Instead of a firm, uncompromising NO to all torture under all circumstances, The Nation’s readers lent themselves to the smokescreen thrown up by the Cheney brigade that led directly to the all-out torture regime that some of us are now regretting. How easy it was to see that this was where the phony ethics-class thumbsucking was going to lead. Nonetheless, people who should have known better indulged in it.

Let’s stop indulging in it now. Law & Order is a much better guide to how a system of laws, deeply flawed though it be, should work: everyone gets a fair shot at justice, suspects have lawyers, cops do not slug people (of course, sure, it’s fiction, not a reality show). That means sometimes criminals GET AWAY WITH IT! Imagine that—a commitment to justice that recognizes we cannot be peectly safe all the time and that prohibiting torture in fact gives us a better shot at lowering crimes rates than the neonazi free-for-all that the NYPD union prefers.

Update: Rebecca Gordon at TomDispatch sums it up nicely:

But none of this matters. Nor does it matter how frightened we are. The situation isn’t complicated. We are not allowed to torture people, because we have passed laws against it and signed treaties saying we won’t do it. The U.N. Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. signed in 1994, makes it very clear that being afraid of an attack is no excuse for torture. In Article 2, the Convention states, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” People will always make excuses, but there is no legitimate excuse for torture.

What’s at stake here is the kind of country we want to be: Are we a courageous nation ruled by laws or a nation of cowards?

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Torture 1


I support the CIA and anyway they can get information out of people who want to kill you. They want you dead ... they want your mom ... daughters and sons dead just because you believe in Western values. I’m not going to apologize for it. The CIA's job is to keep us safe. You act like these were innocent bystanders. That’s what makes it comical.
-taken from a comment thread on Facebook yesterday

Extreme events bring out discomfiting truths. The Michael Brown/Eric Garner cases have depantsed many closet racists in our midsts—my Facebook thread was peppered with stories last week of people de-friending others in shock after seeing their racist comments.

Today, we have the fascists coming out of their cozy closet in response to the CIA torture report. It’s quite startling for people who think their neighbors and friends and relatives are basically decent folks to realize that many of them think torture is basically just fine, just as long as it is applied to those perceived as scary or threatening and the squalid details kept out of sight.

That’s exactly what fascism does, and a depressing percentage of the biped species enjoys the outcome immensely—until, of course, they happen to get caught up in the violent net themselves.

When that happens, howls of outrage pierce the sky. But they do not include condemnations of the techniques or the torture system; rather, the sudden fury of torture’s erstwhile defenders is directed at the appalling notion that THEY should be mistaken for a bad guy. The cycle is so predictable that it’s actually rather boring.

I saw the pattern repeated dozens of time during my time in Chile where torture and disappearance were so common during the early Pinochet years that something close to 10 percent of the entire adult population suffered some form of it at one time or another. But try telling that to a middle-class sympathizer of the military regime, including many lovely persons who would rush to your bedside if you were ill to bring you cazuela. Tut, tut, all lies peddled by Radio Moscow, they would say, OUR soldiers would never do that. Until one of their Christian Democrat friends gets beaten half to death in a police stationhouse, and suddenly all bets are off.

Denial is one of the more pathetic feature of the biped mentality. We have an uncanny capacity to block uncomfortable realities from our consciousness, and this trait is no fault of Americans in particular or more pronounced among a given ethnicity or nation. We’d do better to recognize that personal comfort and pleasure are far more compelling than moral coherence for a sizeable portion of the populace and plan accordingly.

Yes, there are fascists in our midst, always have been and always will be. When we give the state carte blanche to act with impunity and cover up the results, it always can count on willing backers who belong to the non-targeted population to cheer and rationalize. Surprise, dismay and disgust are understandable but in the end a waste of energy that should be directed to more productive ends.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The NYPD has a problem

I’m just back from a couple of hours of what I hope will be repeated marches through the streets in protest of the incomprehensible decision to let off the Staten Island killer cop, caught on videotape choking an unresisting detainee to death. There are several reasons why this should be making the department and the city’s powerbrokers, the ones happy with things just as they are, very nervous. [photo: sit-down protest blocks Columbus Circle, Manhattan]

One: as occurred in Ferguson, the NYPD and the prosecutorial system that protects it have been exposed as profoundly, institutionally racist. This is not news to the people on the receiving end of their abuses, i.e. black males. But it has been too easy for the average white citizen to disbelieve or minimize what is going on on our streets. Such voluntary ignorance is becoming increasingly untenable.

The racist practices within the department are possible because the perpetrators—perhaps a minority of the overall force—act with the full knowledge that their abuses will rarely be discovered and even more infrequently punished. But the impunity also requires deniability; that is now gravely weakened. After today, who will automatically believe cops when they deny they beat up someone, claim an arrestee became violent, or cook up charges against someone who files a complaint?

Two: not surprisingly, there were many young black men and women in the demonstrations tonight. However, a clear majority were white 20/30-somethings. This is not a demographic that you want to permanently alienate, as one Lyndon B. Johnson discovered to his dismay. And these kids are fired up. There are Occupy veterans among the mix, but the sheer numbers tell us that there is a deep malaise among a broad sector of our city’s youth, including many people we would not consider overtly ‘political’ in their habits or outlook. I’m not sure it means the seeds of a new social movement are sprouting. But it might.

Three: the average New Yorker who is not a hopeless, racist asshole is appalled at what happened in this case. I base that judgment both on anecdotal evidence from my daily life but also on the surprising reactions of the drivers whose commute I helped disrupt tonight. While people sat in total gridlock with no prospects of getting their cars moving for an hour or more, most did not scowl or complain but rather looked on with interest. A very considerable number expressed support for the march’s goals by honking, smiling or applauding, or even using the “Hands Up” gesture. I did not see a single angry confrontation of a suburbanite enraged about not getting home in time for dinner.

Four: I saw something else tonight that I have not seen since 1985 in the streets of downtown Santiago: citizens confronting the cops and shouting them into silence. When the bodies of three leftist professionals were discovered with their throats cut in a field near the Santiago airport that year, average office workers fed up with the Pinochet dictatorship poured into the streets spontaneously to express their fury. I witnessed a woman in heels become hysterical screaming in the face of a completely cowed cop, turning the tables on the normal state of affairs under Pinochet in which the cops bullied people as a matter of course.

Something similar happened tonight when a few cops got separated from their platoon and were briefly surrounded by marchers who called them racist murderers to their faces. The look on their faces was one of sudden defenselessness because they knew the angry citizens have a very solid point. Those three cops prudently did not try to billy club their way out of that confrontation because they would have had the shit kicked out of them. Eventually, they were rescued by a dozen back-up officers who were also careful not to knock anyone around.

In short, the cops were scared of the people. You don’t see that too often, and it means the NYPD has a problem.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Ferguson and the echo of American totalitarianism

It’s easy to understand why people in Ferguson or African-Americans in general would be upset, outraged, indignant and depressed all at once about the Michael Brown killing and the police/prosecutor cover-up that followed. But it’s counter-intuitive—or should be—that Officer Wilson’s defenders are just as passionate. Why this blind rush to justify what the guy did? Sympathy for the cops doesn’t fully explain it. What’s going on?

Whatever one makes of the piecemeal evidence available of the incident (since there now will be no trial to clarify it), it could hardly be controversial that teenagers should be guaranteed minimum safety while going about their business and not end up dead. What is it in our national psyche that drives a sector of the populace to rush to Fox News and cheer when any white cop guns down a black kid?

(By the way, anyone who doubts that this occurs should spend some time reading the comment section of any article or social media post on the Ferguson incident and the subsequent demonstrations over it.)

The buried history of American slavery provides an important piece of the answer, or would if we were allowed to make slavery an object of study. It is no accident that we are told so little as children and years linger so briefly during our student over the slavery phenomenon. After the peremptory and superficial required treatment, we never hear about slavery again unless we go digging or specialize in history. In some circles, it’s even considered bad taste or ‘too sensitive’ for fragile and unformed minds to handle.

I realized that many white southerners would rather glide quickly over talk of the bad old days when driving through the black residential areas of Hattiesburg, Missisippi, with a local woman a few years ago. She proudly pointed out the modest black churches where Martin Luther King had once spoken during the dangerous years of his political work in the Jim Crow South. I then asked, ‘Wasn’t Hattiesburg where one of the violent incidents of the Freedom Ride took place? Down at the bus terminal?’ She quickly replied, ‘We don’t talk about that.’ And she wasn’t joking.

There are a few former-slave narratives in existence, written by freedmen or women who managed to escape or were freed during the Civil War and acquired enough learning to record their hair-raising stories. Frederick Douglass’s and Harriet Tubman’s are well known, and now we are aware of Solomon Northup of 12 Years a Slave. But Steve McQueen could spend the rest of his filmmaking career on the accounts by Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, Olaudah Equiano, Henry Bibb and others, some of which make Northup’s trials look fairly tame.

The slaves would go to some cabin at night for their dances; if one went without a pass, which often they did, they would be beaten severely. The slaves could hear the overseers, riding toward the cabin. Those, who had come without a pass, would take the boards up from the floor, get under the cabin floor, and stay there until the overseers had gone. -Mrs. Mittie Blakeley, Oxford, Missouri (Federal Writers Project, WPA, ‘Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United StatesInterviews with Former Slaves/Indiana Narratives’)

[We] Negroes were not allowed an education. It was dangerous for any person to be caught teaching a Negro, and several Negroes were put to death because they could read. -George Taylor Burns, Gregery’s Landing, Missouri

What emerges from these largely forgotten autobiographies are many illuminating details of the pervasive system of social control exercised over slaves and nonwhite freedmen in the antebellum period, a pervasive, homegrown, early Stasi for North America. For example, a simple trip from one plantation to another could turn complicated and physically dangerous if a slave was not able to convince any encountered (and armed) whites that he had permission to be on the road.

Open-carry laws and the entire obsession with gun rights make more sense when viewed in the light of this permanent state of white militarization, an acknowledgment that active control was required to maintain the slave state.

It’s also illuminating as to why supposedly ‘conservative’ Americans are just fine with the permanent snooper state created by the NSA phone-tappers: on some repressed, psychic level, white Americans deeply believe they need to know everything about the suspect portion of the population—they just think they themselves will never form part of it.

We’re familiar with some of the surviving elements of this system in the post-war era from key classics of literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird and from the eye-opening incidents of the Civil Rights period. The difference in the post-chattel slavery era is that when blacks were valuable property, it was costly to kill them. Once slave bodies ceased being possessable and exploitable for their labor-power, it was not. You read a lot about whippings and torture during the slave period, but it was only after the Emancipation that lynching flourished. Before 1865, killing a black, while sometimes deemed necessary or indulged in for sport, cost money. Afterward, it was free.


Sunday, 23 November 2014

Are we heading toward a new era of open racial conflict?

Life in New York is a good metaphor for American society despite our city’s anomalous characteristics. We take for granted that the world is comprised of a variety of diverse peoples who look different from each other, wear particular if not peculiar clothes, speak a variety of languages (160-some at last count within the five boroughs) and generally carry with them a couple of extra identities on top of officer worker, husband, mom, or whatever. We think we get along pretty well and start from a default position of broad tolerance for the annoyances that spring from all these multitudinous approaches to existence. We know that not everyone agrees on how things should be done and for the most part just get on with it, with or without complaint.

But underneath that superficial togetherness is a profound gap in real empathy, a deceptive and self-deceptive liberalism that masks some pretty strong intolerance. This state or affairs may sound unfavorable, but it is probably the best we can hope for—mutual respect whatever one’s personal feelings about chadors, loud subway voices, gentrifiers, sagging trousers, or smug white people. If we conform to minimum standards governing our social behavior, no one is asking us to like everybody else or think they’re swell. It’s the subtle but essential difference between acceptance and respect—I insist on the latter even if my sex life, child-rearing practices, ideas, or personal habits are repugnant to you. And vice versa.

If all social groups and ethnicities shared more or less equally in the bounties of our economic and political system, these rough edges might theoretically fall away over time such that ensuing generations would be more similar than unique and habits of life and mind would became less conflictive, even potentially. But since that is far from the current case, any sudden strains are likely to exacerbate these latent tensions. That’s what I see bubbling to the surface on all sides.

The most glaring example is the relentless litany of race-tinged police abuses that keeps dominating our news cycles. The latest is the completely astounding cop killing of an unarmed guy who committed the suspicious act of walking down the stairway in his apartment building with his girlfriend. How even a rookie cop with an itchy trigger finger could have thought it appropriate to fire into a dark stairwell without the slightest provocation is a mystery even Bill O’Reilly would be hard pressed to justify.

Meanwhile, the Ferguson grand jury is about to emit its decision on the Michael Brown killing, and in advance all the usual pious voices are heard insisting that violent reactions are a big no-no. Never mind where the violence has come from to date and double-never mind that without sustained outrage from local residents, nobody would be paying the slightest attention to one more black kid dead on the sidewalk. Without outrage and threats, the white media wouldn’t give two shits about Ferguson. Now that we have outrage and threats, the outrage and threats—not Darrin Wilson’s acts—are the big CNN story. Shame.

You see the same phenomenon on message threads following any of the black-kid-dies, like the North Carolina teen found hanging in a playground under suspicious circumstances. Instead of accepting that there is a long history of lynching and excessive police force against young black males, indignant commentators insist that anyone highlighting the story is ‘race-baiting’. Close on their heels come the neo-klansmen insisting that the real victims are police officers and/or beseiged white people.

Beneath this steady rewrite lies the unconscious guilt complex of middle America that is convinced the distressing history of slavery ended in 1863 by magnanimous Abe Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Lynch mobs, the KKK, Jim Crow are all in the past, and African Americans should stop complaining and ‘take responsibility’ for their situations, just like everyone’s favorite granddad, Bill Cosby, always said (in between wine parties with young starlets). Never mind that incarceration rates are the highest in history (thanks, Bill Clinton, the ‘first black president’!), voting equality is being reversed all over the Confederacy, and six cops can choke Eric Garner to death in broad daylight.

As we build up evidence that late capitalism is incapable of providing the majority a decent living, distractions like race and ethnicity will be more and more important to the cozy and powerful who must deflect the attention away from their own privileges. Count on the captured corporate media to pump up white fears and rescript the ongoing assault on the powerless as something, anything else.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Who enables the murderers of Mexican youth?

Those people paying attention to things beyond the football stadia of America will have noticed that the police, drug gangs and the Mexican government recently conspired to kidnap, torture and slaughter 43 rural college students who dared to object to the way things are run in their country. Half the country is up in arms (metaphorically speaking, for now) over the horrific incident, one of many tens of thousands of cases of people disappearing or turning up dead in that country, with heads displayed in public thoroughfares, hanging from bridges, etc., etc.

Mexicans blame the profoundly corrupt political class for the sorry state of their nation and these crimes, as well they should. They also blame the police forces, known as the enforcement wings of a variety of narco gangs, and the military, which stands by placidly while the citizenry is chopped to pieces, not so metaphorically. Not much of all this reaches the pages of our newspapers or our iPhone screens, and until the slaughter reaches our own states—which, incidentally, I think will happen in due course—people will continue to think it’s something happening down there with which we have little to do.

But there is one key element of this story that is directly related to us, and I do not refer to our insatiable national appetite for the mind-altering substances whose sale constitutes the Mexican gangs’ most lucrative criminal activity. No, I refer to our banks’ essential role in laundering the profits.

The highly entertaining William Black, professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, lays out in tragicomic detail the latest of many episodes of bankster impunity, in this case the ongoing scandal of Standard Chartered’s bosses’ resistance to any punishment for their vast criminal enterprise. Standard Chartered was fined $667 million by New York State and federal regulators in 2012 for tens of thousands of felonious transactions in defiance of a U.S. ban on fund transfers to Iran and is now howling with offended outrage at this terrible persecution.

As Black notes, the reasonableness of the ban itself is ‘not within my areas of expertise.’ However, he continues,
I guarantee that Standard Chartered’s officers did not aid Iran in evading U.S. sanctions because they conducted an investigation and determined that that Iran was not actually seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

The question is irrelevant to the bank’s behavior, says Black, because Standard Chartered’s officers’ conduct reveals to us that:
. . . they would enthusiastically aid any nation in violating sanctions in order to develop, deploy, and use weapons of mass destruction for genocidal purposes. If Iran isn’t that nation, then we will all have experienced immense luck that Standard Chartered’s officers’ crimes didn’t lead to massive losses of life.

But that doesn’t mean that bankster crimes haven’t led to ‘massive losses of life’ elsewhere, which brings us back to Mexico. It was no more than a year ago (January, 2014) that HSBC, the huge British-based bank, agreed to pay $1.2 billion to settle—without criminal penalties—its long-standing cash-recycling services to the cartels. This follows the 2010 Wachovia wrist-slap for laundering a staggering $300-plus billion for the same friendly guys. Argentine journalist Andres Oppenheimer wrote about Citibank’s narco dry-cleaning operations 20 years ago, in which that U.S. bank got off scot-free.

In short, banks are and have always been complicit in the rise of the drug gangs, and as long as there is profit to be made and regulators to be bought off or intimidated, they always will. Without sustained and consistent prosecution of money laundering with severe criminal penalties applied to the perpetrators, including loss of their ill-gotten gains and prison terms, U.S. and other banks will happily do the narcos’ bidding and enjoy their slice of the proceeds in fancy London and Manhattan bars with hot babes on their arms. Or as Black says, quoting J.K. Galbraith, Do not confuse good tailoring with integrity.

The reason this will continue to occur is that the worst bank clients, i.e., kleptocrats, assassins and con artists, will pay the juiciest fees to bankers. If no one is minding the store at the government level, supervising banking activities and punishing crime when it is discovered, the worst bankers will rise to service these worst customers. It is painfully clear to anyone with a working brain that banking crimes are now considered part of the fun and that no real penalties will be extracted from those engaging in them. Moral opprobrium and ostracism, which once might have been feared by white-collar crooks, are now sufficiently old-fashioned that few need fear them—a possible exception might be for those who provide funds for the Islamic State, though we will have to wait and see on that.

Our banks are, in Black’s terse and descriptive phrase, ‘recidivist criminal enterprise[s],’ [plural mine]. They plundered us all through mortgage fraud, Libor and foreign exchange market rigging, and other crimes too numerous to list. No one engaging in these felonies is ever punished, and the responsibility for that, I regret to inform the Democratic faithful, lies at the feet of outoing Attorney General Eric Holder and his boss, one B. Obama.
Their failure to rein in the rampant criminality at the apex of our financial system makes them directly complicit with the horrible deaths of the 43 Mexican students and that country’s agony. Does that sound harsh?

Sunday, 16 November 2014

NSA v/s the ACA--who got the computer mojo?

It’s a little eerie to watch Citizen Four, the documentary about the handling of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the vast Peeping Tom network at the heart of our government, just as the Obamacare Web site is open for Year 2 of its sorry business.

On the one hand, Snowden’s revelations that we’ve now been reading about for a full year, demonstrate the enormous sophistication and reach of the electronic apparatus now in the hands of the shadow state, its creepy capacity to track our movements through metadata, know our buying habits, map out our social networks, pry into our financial affairs, and of course—as soon as they want to explore further—read our mail. The amorphous, ever-expanding, interlinked blob of “security” enterprises has turned information systems into a finely-honed tool to ‘collect it all’ in their own words, to amass every detail about us, to be called up and analyzed at the right moment—as determined by them.

Ostensibly, it is all to prevent terrorism. Practically and independently of the good intentions of this or that cog in the bureaucratic wheel, it can and will be used to crush dissent.

Meanwhile, the informatics in use for the Affordable Care Act, intended to provide certain millions of previously uninsured Americans with health coverage so that might have the minimum access to a doctor, is a pile of junk. Despite the embarrassing 2013 debacle and a full year of re-preparation (added to the four years since passage of the Act itself), the problems with the clunky and user-unfriendly system still are not fixed.

As Lambert Strether writes in Naked Capitalism under ‘The Crapified Magic of the ObamaCare Marketplace’ the awfulness of the front-end (interface, readily obvious) software is matched only by the awfulness of the back-end (resolution, not apparent until it goes wrong) software. Therefore, not only is navigation almost impossible for tech-savvy, knowledgeable and alert ‘consumers’ (an offensive term in itself as no one should have to ‘consume’ their way to the right to health), but also the likelihood is enormous that users eventually will experience a screw-up in coverage due to the federal health insurance exchange itself (i.e., not the insurance company policies’ predictably vast shortcomings), through miscommunication, wrongfully applied payments, coverage dating errors or any of the million details involved in the infernally complex Kafka-world of health insurance.

Anecdotally, of course, some people are having good experiences with their ACA policies, and good for them. In a program of this size, that’s inevitable. But because of the founding, neoliberal principles of Obama/ RomneyCare’s origins, designed to strengthen the role of financier intermediaries in health provision to help them extract more rent, such happy outcomes will be the exception rather than the rule.

When the state wants to snoop on us, it knows exactly how to do it. But when it is supposedly trying to provide its neediest citizens with a very modest boost in their wellbeing via the signature program of the Obama Administration, it hasn’t got an effing clue.

Bug or feature?


Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Cuomo knifes Working Families (Party)

You have to admire the glee with which our newly re-elected governor, Andrew Cuomo, displays his sleaze. (It’s no accident that he gets along quite well, thank you, with his New Jersey counterpart, the incomparable Chris Christie.) The spectacle of Cuomo’s easy win for another four-year term was better than a swords-and-sandals movie and had just as many bodies on the ground at the closing credits.

Cuomo ran on the usual right-wing platform now sold to us as “centrist”, featuring his opposition to taxes, a direct echo of the Republican concept that public services should be provided for free, preferably using slave labor. He is a big star among the LGBT groups for leading the charge on marriage equality, but he is notoriously friendlier to big business than to the labor unions that, like faithful Democrats, back him no matter what.

The Working Families Party is a fairly effective, leftish vehicle that has built a modest influence through campaigns or all sorts that combine organizing with strategic use of ballot clout. They often endorse Democrats but will sometimes run a competing candidate even when the split could favor a Republican victory.

They had a dilemma when the time came to decide what to do about Cuomo’s re-election, and at first they drafted the remarkable Zephyr Teachout to be their candidate, promptly dumping her when Cuomo held out a juicy deal. Cuomo promised to help push the recalcitrant state senate into the D column to eliminate the Republican veto over progressive legislation in exchange for WFP’s endorsement. They signed on for his campaign, and Cuomo immediately set out to destroy them.

Cuomo had a huge warchest for the campaign that he could have shared, but he did little or nothing to help Dem candidates around the state. Not content with reneging on his agreement, he went a step further and created (with the horrible, snake-like Christine Quinn’s assistance) the Women’s Equality Party to siphon votes away from Working Families and then trash-talked them as irrelevant radicals.

The outcome has been an historic disaster for WFP as Teachout ran a sterling campaign as an independent and garnered an amazing 35% in the primary against Cuomo, very possibly ruining his national ambitions. Had WFP stuck with her, they would now be seen as a group not to be trifled with; instead, WFP struggled to attract the votes needed to retain their fourth-place ballot line and were unceremoniously pushed into fifth by the Greens.

It’s going to get worse very soon as Cuomo has been waiting for the election to be over to re-authorize fracking, further deepening the outrage at this phony liberal. But the error may serve as a good lesson for WFP if it returns to its progressive roots and exercises greater skepticism when dealing, as it inevitably must, with ambitious thugs.

I’m sympathetic to them and have voted their line in the past. An independent third, fourth, or fifth party is good for the state and the city, and it’s helpful to have an organization that can both mount a picket line and compete on the ballot. WFP’s painful experience as an expendable concubine in the Cuomo harem will not soon be forgotten, and I’ll be interested to see how it reacts in coming months.



Saturday, 1 November 2014

The pointless mid-term elections

Our network airwaves here in New York are full of the hateful, mind-numbing political ads that pop up as Election Day approaches and make any sane person hate “politics” as thus represented. The parade of clichés is stunning: the winsome family portraits (with dog), the grainy images of the opponent with the horror-movie voiceover, the Mr. Sincerity shot of the candidate looking into the camera to recount what a reformer/upright guy/defender-of-all-that’s-right he is.

Like clockwork, our local politicians or their surrogates appear at the subway entrances as well, an activity they never engage in during the rest of the year when they are serving as our representatives. That’s because they have no interest in mobilizing us for collective well-being or raising our consciousness about issues (as opposed to about themselves). Sure, they’ll attend our civic activities and even support them—in exchange for a chance to get their hands on the microphone and remind us of their careers. But this is merely piggybacking on community mobilization that has already taken place.

At the national level there is a lot of election parsing among the increasingly narrow band of insiders who remain interested in electoral outcomes and care whether Mitch McConnell takes over from Harry Reid in the Senate. But the average voter, who may be fairly accused of apathy, ignorance and general selfish disinterest in the polity as a whole, also may correctly conclude that the differences on offer are not meaningful. The examples multiply.

For example, our supposedly liberal governor, Andrew Cuomo, has made lower taxes a centerpiece of his campaign. Tax demonization is key to the right-wing worldview: we should NOT pool our resources to help the weak but rather starve government and let nature take its course, i.e., the rich and powerful get to keep everything and toss crumbs to everyone else through charity. Obama has tracked this ideology faithfully by enabling the bankster mafia and “sequestering” non-defense spending, driving down progressive government activities as efficiently as any Reaganite. So Cuomo’s adoption of this rhetoric legitimizes the anti-state worldview—why should anyone rush out to support that?

Our turncoat Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman (whom I once admired), is showing ads of himself handing weaponry and equipment to the cops. This in a city plagued by repeated acts of police violence and deeply entrenched structural racism that turns every black kid into a ready target for arrest and saddles him with a criminal record as a matter of course. (A 20-something acquaintance was just jailed overnight for a cycling violation—something that would never happen to me.) Meanwhile, Schneiderman had a golden opportunity to use his office to go after Wall Street crimes left untouched by the Justice Department and the national Democrats, and if he had done so, he could have run on that.

But instead, he sold out for a seat next to Michelle Obama at the State of the Union address and a phony task force appointment that quickly disappeared down the memory hole. (Check out these fancy promises from 2012—did anything come of them?)

On pretty much any political issue of substance, the two parties manifest varying degrees of horribleness. In some cases the rhetoric from one side is superficially more reasonable until one stops to consider what those spouting it are actually doing. Inequality has suddenly become a big deal, and the Republicans are almost gleeful about it. But the Democrats have been much more efficient in actually generating the gross disparities in income and the financial sector’s seizure of growth gains. So would you rather be stabbed in the chest or drowned in a bathtub?

Nonetheless, I will exercise my right to universal suffrage because if there’s anything worse than electoral politics, it’s their complete absence, and I’ve experienced that, too. Elected officials ignore us, for the most part, and then bamboozle us when they are forced to pay attention. That’s in the nature of our rapidly collapsing system, but their biennial servile posturing, distasteful as it is, is one of the few ways they actually need us to do something, as opposed to passively watching them behave with impunity. It’s important to cling to this slight power, fragile as it is, and utilize it attentively.

[Next: my secret votes revealed!]

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Cuomo, Christie celebrate Hallowe'en early

It’s Hallowe’en, so our esteemed governors have decided to put on clown suits.

The Daily News, which should be ashamed of itself, says the Cuomo announcement to quarantine medical workers coming from West Africa even without symptoms “eases fears” on Ebola. Exactly wrong: he is giving those fears a major boost.

There is so much wrong with this demagogic announcement from Cuomo and Christie that the mind boggles. First of all, what is Cuomo doing sharing a podium with that thug? The exploitation of the mass dementia in tandem with Christie shows that they understand each other perfectly and that alleged differences are secondary to their personal ambition.

Next, WTF? Did these two public health experts even think to check in with the CDC or their own health departments before coming up with this harebrained scheme? Everyone actually trying to respond to the situation—as opposed to furthering their own political careers—thinks dumping people into glorified jails just for traveling to Liberia is a really, really stupid idea. What medical professional with a life is going to volunteer to help out in that extremely dangerous and difficult environment knowing that they will immediately have to spend three weeks when they get back in a cage while a bunch of jerk-offs peer at their poop?

Much more likely that returning volunteers will disguise their movements and slip into the country somewhere else, defeating the whole purpose. As will anyone trying to avoid this Draconian, unscientific and completely ham-handed move.

But a lot of ignoramuses—the real audience for this announcement—will applaud the two goofball governors because, as people used to say about HIV, “Better safe than sorry,” thereby justifying all sorts of useless, counterproductive and stigmatizing exclusions and other hateful acts. All of which did nothing to stop the spread of HIV, but it made people feel safe for a while—kind of like the War on Terror, the torture regime at Guantánamo Bay, and the invasion of Iraq. Those strategies have turned out swell, as we know.

Less than a day later, Cuomo is already backpedaling—a bit, saying that people can enjoy their quarantine at home. Tim Horn at Treatment Action Group has composed a sample letter to be sent to the governors, which can be found on the ACT UP NY Facebook page. (I don’t see it anywhere else yet.) It looks like only sustained public humiliation will get these guys to put public health ahead of their sleazy ambitions.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Bad vs horrible? or bad vs bad?

Two long profiles pieces in weekly magazines—one of Rand Paul in the New Yorker, and a Harper’s anti-profile of Hillary Clinton—have got me thinking about the wacky hypothetical of a Clinton-Paul face-off in 2016. It’s fun to do the thought experiment especially in the light of the Dilma Rousseff-Aécio Neves battle taking place in Brazil tomorrow, the standard-bearer of the erstwhile leftish Workers Party shooting for a fourth WP term in office v/s the Brazilian version of a suit.

From afar, one assumes that most people favor keeping the corrupt business class out of power and oppose the conservative candidate. But given the disappointments of the Lula-Dilma regimes, including gross corruption fully in the spirit of the Brazilian Way, one has to ask what is lost by continuing to have a cardboard version of a progressive in office while carring out an uber-business-friendly program.

Meanwhile, São Paulo may be out of water in a few weeks, a detail Dilma’s workers have been ignoring just like the bosses did while pushing for more hydroelectric plants in the Amazon and doing little to stop the ravages of the zone’s ecology. All of which makes that election sound more and more like a fight between the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front. But I digress.

Rand Paul is just unorthodox enough to be less than 100% hateful, capable of taking good positions on excessive prison terms and a less hawkish foreign policy. No doubt if he gets anywhere near seriousness as a candidate, both will be quickly bullied out of him, and there are signs he’s starting to conform to the wacko brigades’ demands already. But just for fun, what if he continued to be a libertarian Republican, hostile to abortion and gay rights, but determined to put an end to foreign wars of conquest?

How would one feel about opposing him to support a gay-friendly imperialist like Madame Clinton making noises about, say, bombing Iran, sending troops to Moldava or some other Russian frontier zone, and promising to further enable the CIA’s secret armies and the NSA snoopfest?

Or to put it another way, Is it better to have someone in office who makes rhetorial nods at worthy goals and takes note of problems that do exist—for example, the Democrats’ newfound interest in economic inequality while they do everything necessary to protect and sustain the power of the superrich? Or might it be simply bad in a different way to have the right-wing program carried out by real right-wingers with all the collateral damage that would entail?

It’s an interesting moral choice even given the likelihood that none of it will matter and the shadow state will make our decisions for us no matter who happens to be its public face. The only thing that will slow down the ever-tinier elites is popular opposition expressed in concrete ways such as the upheaval in Ferguson or the old Occupy movement—not by voting habits.

I hate to be a broken record, but the example of the decade is the Chilean student movement, extra-parliamentary, uncompromising and based on physical presence in the streets. They were uninterested in promises they had no reason to believe and did not fall for the Woo-Woo! Look at those bad guys over there! routine, even when the bad guys in question were the remnants of the Pinochet dictatorship.

Instead, they harassed the authorities relentlessly, and the result was a new president promising to eliminate university tuition. The story is not over, but our creaky democratic apparatus is

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Bad guys target journalists

Peter Grieste is the Australian reporter sitting in an Egyptian jail cell since last December for the crime of journalism. He and two Al-Jazeera colleagues, Abdullah Elshamy and were found guilty of abetting terrorism (as well as “spreading false news”) by the Egyptian military regime based on the usual absurd evidence. Now serving a 7-year sentence, he composed a speech, for Britain’s Frontline Club awards ceremony, put together by friends and family based on conversations they had with him, and it’s pretty dramatic.

Grieste says he’s had time to think about what is going on today in the world of journalism given his own case and the appalling on-camera murders of two free-lancers in Syria. He is duly shocked by those crimes, and he also reminds us that demonizing reporters didn’t start with the Islamic State.

As much as we abhore and condemn the [ISIS] executions of James and Steven, it was George Bush who set the ground rules in the wake of 9/11 when he declared that you’re either with us or with the terrorists. That single statement made it impossible for reporters to hold to the principles of balance and fairness without being accused of acting as an agent for the enemy.

Al Jazeera learned that to its cost when the US hit its offices in Baghdad during the invasion to oust Saddam. And in Afghanistan one of its camermen, Sami al Haj, was arrested. He spent seven years in Guantanamo Bay before being released without charge.

Greste warns against enjoying a convenient episode of amnesia that would allow us to see the brutality in the jihadists’ treatment of reporters and forget certain precedents set by the invaders. He doesn’t mention, but could have, the act that impelled Chelsea Manning to release classified U.S. government documents to Wikileaks—the suppressed video of the American troops killing a news cameraman in Iraq.

Grieste puts the blame on the amorphous “war on terror.” He says that a conflict that “by its very nature is indefinable, with no clear physical or ideological boundaries, with a title that means everything and nothing,” creates the conditions for a “war against telling the truth and reporting facts.”

[I]n all of these battlegrounds, whether hot or cold, journalists are no longer on the front lines. We are the front lines. In this wider conflict, there is no such thing as a neutral, independent reporter. In the view of both sides, if you cross the lines in pursuit of our most fundamental principles of balance, fairness and accuracy, you effectively join the enemy.

Since the War on Terror began, all manner of abuse of journalists and attacks on human rights and press freedoms have been excused as necessary evils, and by governments across the globe. It almost feels like a kind of globalised McCarthyism, where simply invoking terrorism is enough, in some cases, to get away with murder.

Getting away with murder has been deemed essential to Keeping Us Safe. Now reporters are fair game for both sides.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Why do we hear nothing about the main enemy? Saudi Arabia

With the appearance of the Islamic State, the Global War on Terror launched originally by GW Bush is now a miserable failure. A sworn enemy of the United States that delights of public brutality wields an effective military force, holds huge swaths of territory in the heart of the Middle East and openly defies its enemies. Perversely, its mystique is so potent that hundreds, perhaps thousands of Europeans including non-Muslims, flock to its banner.

Thus both the neocons’ “hard” and “soft” weapons, the vast array of firepower and the sustained ideological campaign against terrorism—whatever that has come to mean—are ineffective if not counterproductive. The only remaining question is whether the present failure will be turned in a catastrophe and from there into a debacle.

It is startling to see, even at this late date in the terrorism game, a Western TV reporter quizzing a member of this suddenly new player, the IS army, as to whether he endorses the terrorist killings of innocent women and children. She apparently sees no irony in asking that question of an individual who has seen nothing but such deaths in his immediate vicinity for well over a decade. But since 9/11 onward, any attempt at understanding what might be in the minds of the official bad guys is dismissed as disrespectful and subversive. We now see the results in our institutional and collective cluelessness about what to expect next.

It’s hard to know where to begin to untangle the mass of bad news emerging from those lands, but one good starting point is an important piece of collective amnesia that it goes back to 9/11 itself: the permanent collusion of the Saudis in everything that went wrong then and continues to do so today. Who even remembers that most of the Trade Center hijackers were Saudi citizens? Or that Bush’s team quickly whisked members of the bin Laden extended family out of the country before they could be lynched or even questioned about the activities of their famous relative?

Washington’s permanent wink-wink at the Saudis’ nefarious activities in the region, including their vast funding of Islamic zealots, has now resulted in the IS Frankenstein. As Patrick Cockburn outlines regularly, funds for the psycho bandits of IS have flowed in vast amounts from the oil-rich sheikdoms, but given the Saudis’ and Qataris’ ostensible position in Washington’s back pocket, no harm ever comes to them for doing it. Their role in bringing down the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was considered such a rousing success that our leadership cabal has decided to let them keep it up. If God is indeed great or even pretty okay, the caliph-worshippers eventually will sweep away the hateful Saudi royal family itself.

The attempt to exercise greater and more direct control over everybody in that part of the world has now collapsed to such a point that weakening one enemy only strengthens another. Does Obama blast Isis and give the loathsome Assad a free hand? Does the Turkish president press on to undermine Assad and generate the byproduct of a massacre of Syrian Kurds? Does that then restart his civil war with the Kurdish minority? Does the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government get help from the U.S. to recover territory, thus unleashing anew the Shiite death squads that pushed Sunnis into Isis’s hands? If the whole sorry scenario weren’t so horrifying, it would merit a Marx Brothers routine.

And of course then there is money, C5A-fulls of it transported to Afghan, Syrian, Pakistani or Iraqi collaborators in neat pallets of $100 bills straight from the U.S. mint that is supposedly so burdened by DEBT that research into the Ebola virus had to be sequestered and cut back. No sums shall be deemed too great to toss into the bottomless pit of the next military maneuver, weapons program, or booted mission, and ignominious failure of one sure-fire idea will lead directly to the next. Contractors will thrive, and congressional districts heavy with arms manufacturers will hum with activity. Legislators will sell themselves as brazenly as the seductresses of Amsterdam and for substantially less.

And what is the reward for this decades-long enabling of the Saudi meddlers sitting atop their pyramids of cash and propagating medieval phallic worship? They are now permitted to undermine the entire world economy by driving down the price of oil just when a little price inflation is what billions of people urgently need.

It’s remarkable that given the ease with which our propaganda apparatus cranks up enemies to suit the discourse of the moment, the Saudis remain untouched, almost beyond criticism. The Taliban and the Iranians are hateful to women, Isis publicly beheads people, enemies here and there fund terrorists and all get shellacked in our media. But the Saudis, who have been doing all these things for decades and much more effectively, remain completely off the hook.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Ebola screw-up and big data health capitalism

Entirely without premeditation, I find I have taken a break from commenting on our biped species’ determined rush toward oblivion. I did take a two-week vacation and then commented on it for another week afterward, which was very restorative and felt self-indulgent—lingering Calvinism, no doubt. It is a bit surprising, though, to see how long it has taken me to refocus on the many ways in which humanity drives forward unrelentingly toward the multiple precipices of its/our own creation. I now feel sufficiently retoxified to resume.

Incidentally, however, I must express, albeit in the form of cliché, an observation: our disappearing world contains many marvels, which remain a source of delight.

The latest episode in biped self-immolation is the dysfunctional response to the first Ebola patient, a Mr. Duncan, and the continuing attempts to ignore the lessons that could have been learned by those mistakes. This careful review from Health Care Renewal points out several aspects that drew my attention. As many have noticed, the patient’s recent visit to West Africa was not communicated to other medical staff, and he was discharged despite having a high fever.

So far this is not rocket science: the man was black, uninsured and in Texas. What facts might be missing here? Is there some reason why he would NOT be promptly discharged onto the street given that the hospital could not make any money off him by ordering more tests or keeping him overnight as a mere sick human being? What minimally educated MBA hospital administrator would not applaud a nurse for getting this useless element out of their pristine medical facility toot sweet?

Now obviously there is a special circumstance here in that the fact of a dangerous infectious disease epidemic outbreak is hardly a secret and should have alerted anyone in the health field, especially including ER staffs. Although Texas might not care much about a penniless African immigrant, his microbes could have infected prosperous white people. Why didn’t the information about his travels get passed on?

Here we run into the modern fetish of electronic everything: the nurses might well have overlooked entering his crucial travel data into their computerized medical records. The article linked to above quotes an interview with the hospital corporation’s Chief Operating Officer, Jeffrey Canose. (The company is called Texas Health Resources, which I find a curious choice: “health resources “could mean things like gauze and doctors, of course, but I suspect they mean something more like a vein of ore to be mined.)

The biggest challenge is to continue on our journey to increase our capabilities as a fully integrated health system; to develop the competency to be a high-performing system in the realm of population health management; to shift our focus from sick care to actually managing well-being. . . .

Aside from the unctuous, business-school prose (“continue on our journey”), this bland rhetoric masks a ruthless business plan: how to collect premiums while not paying for people to be cured (“sick care”).

Now, “managing well-being” sounds innocuous enough. It could mean more attention to preventive health actions—who could object to that? On the other hand, it could (spoiler alert: does) mean figuring out who may need expensive services down the road and figuring out how to avoid paying for them.

How do they plan to go about doing that? Mr Canose tells us:

. . . people in IT are mission-critical partners in hearing what kinds of problems we’re trying to solve and in helping us to figure out how to drive clinical transformation and care design, and how to drive efficiency. . . . the electronic health record is a huge enabler to all this; the next challenge will be to enable things further, including through data mining, working with big data and clinical and operational support.

Why all the attention to IT and “big data”—meaning amassing huge numbers of medical files on all of us to detect patterns? (“Why do you have such long teeth, Grandma?”) Why, to better extract rent (“resources”) from the health care apparatus, my dear.

Anyone even marginally close to primary or emergency care as currently practiced, as I am, will immediately recognize what Canose is referring to: the requirements imposed on all providers from the moment a patient walks in the door to gather a slew of data on that person, which is fed into the maw of hospital computer servers. Ostensibly, it is designed to improve patient care, and it may have that effect in some cases. But we have all become bits in a database, dependent upon the carefully pre-pacakaged and pre-priced services to which we are entitled according our place in the system (and contribution to it). The hospital needed Mr. Duncan’s vitals and data on his health history and personal habits to beef up the statistical power wielded by its analysts so that Mr. Canose can sit in his office and calculate the health, illness and cost probabilities of a million future patients.

But in the rush to nail down what the system needed to “continue on its journey” toward greater shareholder profits, salient facts about Mr. Duncan were either ignored or not flagged because “recent travel to West Africa” does not appear in any of the complex algorithms related to extracting rent from health care. Given that the lesson of this major goof, if acknowledged and digested, would complicate the economics of our entire system, we can be fairly confident that it will NOT be learned. Ebola-specific errors may now be corrected as long as the attention remains high. But the broader indictment of how profit-making is undermining health outcomes will be studiously ignored.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Day 6 - Niagara Falls to Toronto


The border guards were curious about my tale, and perhaps since they didn’t have anyone else in line at 6 a.m., brought me inside to inquire further about my scant kit (Where are your clothes?), motivation for biking 500 miles (Why didn’t you take the train?), and solvency (How much money do you have?) They also generously took note of my age but eventually decided that odd practices were not grounds for exclusion from Canada. After all, they have their own whimsical side [left].

The Canadian side of the falls is more dramatic as one gets a full-on view of the cascade rather than the awkward sideways perspective available in New York. But the honky-tonk prize goes, surprisingly, to the Canadians who have loaded up the approaches to the falls with all sorts of seedy touristic drek. There were two or three visitors out catching the panorama just after dawn, so I got my photos in and pedaled off to see what Ontario looks like, having not visited Canada since the 1970s.

The first obvious difference is that the Canadian roads, despite heavy traffic, had inadequate shoulders, often forcing cyclists—which were plentiful—onto the sidewalks. No one objected, and motorists seemed used to us as well as cautious; but it felt unsafe. Then there was the immediate monument celebrating the War of 1812 and a battle site just across the border there in which Canadians kicked our Yankee asses. They seemed quite content to memorialize a war we are neglectful of, Ohioans being perhaps the exception given our attention to the heroics Admiral Perry—victorious heroics, to be sure.

The first town on the Ontario side is St Catherine’s, a tidy, serene place with a beautiful cemetery with chimes memorializing the many veterans laid to rest there. A group of retirees oriented me toward Hamilton and wished me well in a most encouraging way. Outside the town the first of many abundant fruit stands appeared as peach and plum season was at peak. That section of Ontario is actually further south than most of Michigan, so I guess an ample growing season should not have been surprising.

On the road to Hamilton I went past a kid on inline skates who asked me directions. It was hard to imagine him climbing the hills 20 miles in those things—but who was I to question? Near Grimsby many sites and businesses made reference to “the 20,” so I asked several people what it meant. (Twenty fallen soldiers in a battle? Twenty homesteading families in a new settlement? Twenty bears in a cave?) No one knew, and it’s not on the Internet.

At Hamilton the road veers from west around the point of Lake Ontario back due east, and I needed directions from a bike shop. It was complicated, but the bike route was well laid out with a lane reserved. After that, the stretch into Toronto followed Lakeshore Boulevard for a lat 50 miles or so, and I just powered on into the outskirts where a friendly young couple took this picture of my triumphant entry [below].

So after having given myself eight days to do the trip, I had arrived in six. The bike had performed magically without even a flat tire; my stamina, carefully nurtured with a steady intake of proper foods and electrolyte-laden water, had as well. I had kept my balance, not just on the two-wheeled machine, but in my own head, maintaining a cautious confidence that things would unfold to my advantage and all my needs would be met.

It would be pointless to deny that there were times I asked myself, Whose idea was this anyway? when toiling up seemingly endless curves only to plunge down the other side and face another ridge; when roaming through vast, open fields a little too late in the afternoon without even an abandoned lean-to in sight; when observing the contented families out lolling by lakes and rivers with their vehicles standing by ready to whisk them off to domestic comforts.

But I knew all that before starting out and did it anyway. I am drawn to the uncertainty, the multiple challenges, the isolation and anonymity, and the accompanying freedom. The countryside is benign and quite friendly overall (for white people at least), and I was armed with credit cards and a mobile phone. The worst case outcome was having to bail on the trip for whatever reason and rearrange my plans.

People frequently express disbelief when I confirm that I made this trip, and I can only agree—it feels unreal to me, too. And yet the answer to the How? question is, One mile at a time. It’s rather amazing how far one gets with nothing more than single-minded concentration on taking the next right step.

The route: 20 from Niagara Falls, Ontario, to back roads into St Catherine’s, 81 out west to Grimsby and Hamilton, a complicated turn through the freeway intersections onto Lakeshore Boulevard straight into the bike paths leading to Toronto. Niagara Falls to Hamilton, 54; Hamilton to the Toronto downtown airport, 51; total: 105. Estimated six-day total: 546.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Day 5: Victor to Niagara Falls

Gear and clothes were dry by the following morning, so I set off by the back roads from Victor in the dark wearing my headlamp and aa bright yellow Izod windbreaker, required for the first time in the cool breezes. The country roads were pleasant and empty with deer appearing regularly to address me with those indignant stares before crashing into the woods. But the larger intersections were crowded with commuter traffic heading toward Rochester.

I made good time to Mendon, Rush and Scottsville where I entered the local diner full of dour Scots, or convincing fascimiles, who stared judgmentally, said nothing, and overcharged me. Was happy to show the place my mounted backside.

There are fewer routes west at this point to cross the last third of New York State, and I had to make a decision of whether to push further north or continue straight west through Batavia. The country is less hilly, which was a relief after the Appalachian ridges of eastern New York. But the scanty population meant that towns would be far apart, possibly complicating pit stops for water or repairs. I opted for a slightly more southerly route through the town of LeRoy, which features a Jell-O museum celebrating the invention of that substance within its borders (I didn’t pay it a visit) and one town with billboard-sized photos of local youths enlisted in various branches of the military, celebrated as “local heroes.” It was a good reflection of the heavily militarized environment of upstate with many signs in yards calling for the repeal of the (post-Newton, Connecticut, shooting) S.A.F.E. Act, which outlawed assault weapons, and others endorsing the Republican candidate for governor, Rob Astorino. Most people in the five boroughs could not correctly identify this personage, nor would they see any reason to do so.

My recollections of this day of pedaling are the least vivid, probably as a result of the unremarkable countryside and few interactions that I experienced while covering the 80-some miles between Victor and the Buffalo area. Local news and weather reporters speak of this stretch of western New York as the “lower tier,” a curious construct of the map—it’s where a long, straight line separates the southern portion of New York State from Pennsylvania but has no physical existence outside this cartographic formality.

The most remarkable stretch of the day was the route up the Niagara River to Niagara Falls, which I settled upon by checking the map and did not realize took me through a desolate, industrial stretch that included miles of eerily deserted buildings with nothing resembling civilization nearby. It was the one time that I felt vulnerable and exposed, not because of the presence of threatening or dubious-looking persons but due to the utter absence of any persons at all, including shops, stores or businesses along the way. It would not have been a comfortable spot for changing a flat.

Cheap and adequate motels are usually found on the outskirts of a city while downtown lodgings tend to be pricey. But Niagara Falls turned out not to follow that logic. The approaches to the tourist area were rundown and tragic, classic rust-belt scenarios everywhere with no rooms to be found of any sort. (The one exception was a grim welfare hotel near the sewage treatment plant that looked like the set for a sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.)

But the downtown hotels near the falls were moderately priced and staffed by cheerful employees who welcomed my bike into their rooms and made my stay there so enjoyable that I was tempted to take an extra day off. After a quick shower, I headed down to catch the spectacle at sunset and had, for the second time during the trip, a moment of ecstatic insight, influenced no doubt by the intense exercise and the wondrous sight and yet effused with something more mundane and remarkable banality: I was entranced by the idea of water.

Saint-Exupery in Wind, Sand and Stars describes his near-death experience in the Sahara desert after a plane crash and his last-minute rescue by a Bedouin with a bowl of life-giving water, and his phrases about the way he tasted the substance for the first time are memorable. Seeing that vast supply pouring over the cliffs between the U.S. and Canada made me marvel at the strange accident of our watery earth, how its temperature is precisely right for these molecules to come together and wash over us, to lubricate us into existence for whatever brief period we manage to sustain it. It was like an LSD trip, impossible to describe in any but banal terms and yet unforgettable.

The route: 96 out of Victor to 251 (Victor-Mendon Road) to Mendon and Scottsville, then rural roads 383 to U.S. 36, back away from traffic via 245 and 17 to Route 8, 34, and 33 into Batavia. Route 5 west to 324 and 384 through Amherst and Towananda, 265 and 384 into Niagara Falls. Victor to Towananda, 82 miles, to the falls another 18. Total: 100 on flat terrain.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Day 4 - Trumansburg to Victor, NY

The B&B proprietress had announced she would be up early and left coffee ready to brew, so I waited to have a predawn chat with her. But when the sky began to lighten, I headed down the slight ridge back to the main road that runs along the lake. Rain was forecast, and I was eager to get to Seneca Falls before running into any, assuming that I could wait it out by visiting the museum dedicated to the town’s historical role as the birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement.

The shore along that northern half of Cayuga Lake is close to the road rather than tucked away down steep inclines as is the case near Ithaca. So instead of luxury homes there were many more piers, boathouses, and buildings of one kind or another, but no cafes or restaurants open that early on a Tuesday. But the clouds merely threatened without producing any raindrops.

Upon the approach to Seneca Falls, past the Chiropractic College on its outskirts, I happened upon this landmark [photo above] commemorating the chance 1851 meeting on the street of the town between Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, which led to their lifelong collaboration as chief organizer and pamphleteer, respectively, of the women’s equality movement.

The Seneca, of course, were part of the Iroquois Confederation, but had sided with the British during the revolution. Historical signs dot the landscape of the area referring to the “campaign” or “expedition” of General Sullivan of 1779, in the midst of the war. From Wikipedia:

Sullivan's army carried out a scorched earth campaign, methodically destroying at least forty Iroquois villages throughout the Finger Lakes region of western New York, to put an end to Iroquois and Loyalist attacks against American settlements. With the Amerindians’ shelter gone and food supplies destroyed, thereafter the strength of the Iroquois Confederacy was broken. The death toll from exposure and starvation dwarfed the casualties received in the Battle of Newtown, in which about 1,000 Iroquois and Loyalists were decisively defeated by an army of 3,200 Continental soldiers. White Loyalists also lost their homes and lands in the deliberate scorched earth actions explicitly ordered by General George Washington, who was soon after known in Amerindian cultures by the pejorative “the Burner of Towns.” The survivors fled to British regions in Canada and the Niagara Falls and Buffalo areas. The devastation created great hardships for the thousands of Iroquois refugees who fled the region to shelter under British military protection outside Fort Niagara that winter, and many starved or froze to death.

Thus our proud history of gender equity, inaugurated by staunch opponents of American slavery, also originates at the crossroads where the way of life of the region’s indigenous population was finally destroyed.

The museum was closed on Tuesday, and I could not visit it.

I asked directions to the public library of an elderly Italian guy having his coffee in front of an imported food store and noted with the waitress in the coffee shop next door that there were many Italian names in the local cemetery. She confirmed that Seneca Falls has a large Italian colony and notes that the day’s soup special was called “Italian wedding.”

Western New York flattens out and is smoother riding, the towns more scattered but still popping up at comfortably regular intervals. However, the few main east-west routes are heavily trafficked. I asked a young girl sitting with her bike at Seneca Lake outside of Geneva how to avoid the highway and eventually found a back way through helpful attendants at gas stations. An agricultural experimentation station was the guidepost to the easier route 4 west, and at Hopewell Corner, friendly women clerks at the country store sold me Gatorade and spoke knowledgeably about the cooling capoline fabric that I had wisely bought in New York and which kept me fresh throughout the unusually humid days. Everyone speculated on when the rain would hit, myself included.

In Canandaigua the storm clouds gathered more ominously, and I found myself by chance in front of a bike shop with this clever hitching post.
The owner got out his map and showed me how to get to the town’s airport and follow Country Road 30 straight west again, but the rains interrupted, and I ducked under shop awnings up and down the main street, trying not to stay too long in one place to draw unhappy stares from the owners. The best place was a bench outside a bar where the drinkers slipped out regularly to smoke and acknowledged me tersely, thinking nothing of my slumped over, half-asleep form. I bought a new vial of electrolyte tablets and got my tires filled and enjoyed the busy movements of a fairly large city that I had never heard of.

There was plenty of time for riding left when the rains seemed to be letting up for good, and I rode steadily into the next town, Bloomsburg, whereupon I saw this unexpected sign in a yard [left]. Pulling into the gravel driveway, I greeted the man standing in his driveway with his dog and asked if he was Mr. Frasca. Yes, he said, to which I answered, So am I. His name was Dale Frasca, and he spoke of his immigrant grandfather from the area south of Naples, his 13 aunts and uncles on that side, a distant cousin in Brooklyn, took my card, and thanked me warmly for the unusual visit.

This detour turned out to be rather costly, as the storm clouds gathered again and I stopped to ask for water at a fruit stand, the owner showed me on her iPhone weather app the colorful line of storms approaching. “If you don’t get to Victor before they get here,” she said, “you’ll be stuck a long time.” I decided to make a dash for the town 4 miles up the road, mostly downhill, which turned out to be an error. The rains hit within minutes, and I was soaked but saw no reason at that point to turn back and flew down the approach into Victor and past the town to the refuge of a motel. The bike handled marvelously, and the despite the drenching never showed any sign of creakiness then or afterward. Would it have been better to stay at the fruit stand for two hours, then break for town in the near-dark? I didn’t stay to find out, and all was well. It was only 5 p.m., but we were done for the day.

The route: Continued north along Cayuga Lake on 89, then west on 116 into seneca Falls. 110 to Waterloo and Geneva, then 4 due west to Canandaigua, North Bloomfield Road and Country Road 30 past the airport and into Bloomfield, then north on 444 to Víctor. Mileage: Ulysses to Seneca Falls, 31; to Geneva, Waterloo, and Canandaigua, 34; Bloomfield and Victor, 14; total 79 with riding time cut short by rain.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Day 3 - Deposit to Trumansburg, NY - Sept 1


There is an unsettling moment that often occurs on these trips when night is approaching and any options for lodging are not readily apparent. I had pulled into a couple of deserted towns with hardly a functioning store before making my way to Deposit, where it began to drizzle, and the deserted Sunday afternoon streets did not offer many opportunities even for a casual contact. It began to look like I might be facing a chilly night under the awning of a deserted shed or roadside fruit stand when a man walked by on the opposite sidewalk in what appeared to be the long robes of a Franciscan monk—hardly the outfit you'd expect to see in small-town Appalachia. He very cordially told me about two motels located on the edge of town a few yards from the banks of the Delaware. One was full, but the manager of the other did not find my arrival by bike remarkable and set me up with a convenient balcony. I even had time to shop and watch the sunset over the river as the evening cleared. As usual, anxiety over creature comforts was unwarranted.

The same problem recurred the following night (Day 3) when the shores of Lake Cayuga north of Ithaca turned out not to be populated with plentiful, cheap resorts but rather with fine vacation homes in exclusive settings. These areas are the worst for casual travelers as the only options for overnight stays are usually pricey B&Bs or elegant lodges catering to the premium trade.

First, I had to make my way into Binghampton, a fairly large city and SUNY college town. Locals told me that the old secondary road that predates the 17 freeway did not go all the way into town, but a useful map posted at the downtown crossroads of Windsor about halfway to the city showed the existence—apparently unknown to motorists—of a well considered bike route complete with its own signage [below].

The large student population probably stimulated the establishment of this convenient arrangement, by which one can make one’s way into the city via back roads, all clearly marked, which skirt the main highway. I was sitting in the central Binghampton plaza by breakfast time and took this photo [below left] of the impressive courthouse there. A fellow cyclist stared at me in a peculiarly unfriendly fashion, offered no information, and munched his doughnut. But a local directed me to a diner sure to be functioning even on Labor Day and shared his civic pride over the booming branch of the state university and other felicitous developments. Solo bike trips impel one to casual contacts of this sort, and they are comforting even when it takes two or three attempts to draw out a friendly response.

West of Binghampton is Johnson City, which looked suspiciously like the section blacks are expected to live in, then a couple of country roads lead to the northwest toward Ithaca, all containing killer hills that forced me to climb down and push for only the second (and last) time of the trip. But aside from a brief stretch on a too-busy main road without a shoulder, the rest of the way to Ithaca was delightful country pedaling over rolling hills.

Ithaca matched the perfect cliché vision I had formed of it as an Ivy League college town: a tiny downtown with the usual shops and an oversupply of restaurants outdoing each other for haut dining pretension. My attempt to get a quick dish without abandoning the poorly secured bike required three waiters ceremoniously presenting themselves by their first names and reciting the local ingredients used to prepare the menu items. Long afterward, a broccoli cheese soup appeared without the inedible stem removed.

It was late afternoon before I scrambled out, and the highway that runs along the lake on its west side did not look favorable for my purposes. The state park was hosting a huge Labor Day crowd, and I was tempted to try to sneak into a lean-to or cabin to spend the night but thought better of it. These are the trying moments in which one questions the wisdom of the entire outing; and yet if one relies on the locals for advice, something always comes through. A particularly friendly young farm couple directed me into the side road leading to the hamlet of Trumansburg to a B&B, where a sign on the door said to phone for assistance. As I sat on its porch, a lady in housecoat and curlers burst out the door and gave herself a heart attack as she hadn’t checked her messages. She turned out to be a charming hostess; her establishment and the village itself are located in the Town of Ulysses.

The route: West out of Deposit on 315 (old 17), becoming 28 to Windsor, West Windsor, Binghampton, 11 to downtown. Then 17C to Johnson City, Endwell, north on 29 (Taft Avenue), becoming Twist Run Road (76), north on 13, short stretch on highway 26, then northwest on 308 to 38 north at Newark Valley, west on 79 into Ithaca. North along Cayuga Lake on 89 to Frontenac Road turnout into Trumansburg (Town of Ulysses). Deposit to Binghampton, 30 miles; to Newark Valley, 25; to Ithaca, 27; to Trumansburg, 13, total 95, add 5 for wrong turns and indirect routes: roughly 100 miles.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Day 2. Wurtsboro to Deposit, NY


I couldn’t make the coffee machine work in the motel lobby and left without having any since no one else was up on a Sunday at 5 a.m. This minor event turned out to have certain consequences.

The towns in the mountainous areas outside of New York are nestled, not surprisingly, in valleys; a river or stream often runs through them. Thus coming into a town usually involves a fairly thrilling descent, and starting out the next morning entails the opposite. The climb out of Wurtsboro on “old 17” is not excessively steep but easily 3 miles long, meaning 30 to 40 minutes of hard pedaling in the lowest gear. My energy didn’t really recover all day, and I was later given to understand that the caffeine deprivation caused my pre-dawn food intake to have no immediate impact on my blood sugar levels. As a result, I was propelling the bike, my gear and myself up a mountain “on fumes.” I didn’t make that mistake again—a trip this physically challenging can remain fun despite the fatigue, but one has to feel invigorated overall, not sluggish.

In the next town, Rock Hill, I stopped at a gas station where a cordial attendant of Indian ethnicity let me fill up my bottle at the water tap. (Not everyone reacts in a kindly manner when you ask that favor in stores.) He promptly began to tell me the story of his life, his U.S. government-sponsored scholarship to study here, his time with the Navaho in the southwest understanding their economy, the occasional hostility to his employment in the convenience store as a foreigner while others are jobless. He was blithely dismissive of the xenophobia, which was refreshing, and yet I had to wonder if he had any sense of the vast entitlement he had enjoyed in his life up to now, to be plucked from India with an opportunity to study abroad (the fellowship was worth $80,000 as he informed me at once), presumably with the idea that he would go back home armed with this useful new knowledge, to then have the freedom to decide to stay, to engage in business in an economically depressed area. Canada, I would later discover, remains the immigrant nation par excellence, and people are expected to go there, find opportunities and thrive—as was once the case here. Our nativism is short-sighted, but this guy’s indifference to others’ misfortunes was unappealing in its own way.

These bike journeys with no fixed daily destinations always present the issue of how far to push on when dusk approaches. I will not ride in the dark, but there are hours of twilight, even in September, that are ambiguous enough that one is tempted to try for the next town. Seeing Monticello on that second morning, however, which was my original, map-driven goal, made me realize that I had made the right choice to remain in cozy Wurtsboro though it had still been early when I arrived. Monticello has a racetrack and “gentlemen’s clubs” by the roadside, and the motels conveniently placed nearby were not the kinds of establishments in which I would have felt terribly comfortable. It’s a dump, and I was glad to show it my back.

Outside of the town, I came close to making my first major routing error. The signage was confusing, and I nearly took 17 north to Liberty. But that way out of town involved an enormous descent, and I stopped to double check, thinking that if I went down the wrong way, it would be a bitch to have to come back up. The correct route was 17B west to the town of Bethel and eventually the Delaware River valley. This is the site where Woodstock took place in 1969, and I stopped at a diner there to enjoy the local ambience. The waitress had full-sleeve tattoos, and her ponytailed co-worker a jacket with H.A.T.E. emblazoned on the back, meaning “Hotrodders Against The Environmentalists.” Yet they were full of fun and friendly, making jokes and displaying their offbeat, biker-redneck style more as a fashion statement than a campaign. Still, a few miles down the road I saw a biker enter the road with a swastika on his helmet. A white-haired guy in the restaurant made small-talk and greeted me with a honk later when he passed me in his convertible sports car.

These roads were eerily deserted with the main traffic confined to the four-lane highway nearby. The road dipped and curved through still, silent towns that looked trapped in a Norman Rockwell time warp, the real life of the region now occurring elsewhere. Some houses were abandoned entirely, especially those too close to the freeway where any resident would have had the annoyances of isolation along with the drawbacks of the noise and rush of modernity. A good many rural crossroads were populated with ancient junk-cum-antique stores piled high with bric-a-brac of the decades, like the peculiar establishment shown at the top of this post in the town of Equinunk, not an Inuit trading post but a village within driving distance for excursionists from New York. The family’s children played nearby; the store probably opened later in the afternoon.

There was a heavy enough mist that I pulled over at another country store a while later, sat outside with my Gatorade at a picnic table to rest and wait out the sprinkles, and fell asleep briefly. When I set back out, the rural biker bar that appeared on my right reminded me strongly of another bar I had passed on the opposite side—no doubt this sort of establishment is popular in the area, I thought. Then I saw a sign indicating that I was headed south and realized that my rest break had left me disoriented—I was going the wrong direction, and the two biker bars were actually one and the same. Only a mile or so lost in that mix-up.

At Calicoon, I was in dense parkland along the gorgeous Delaware River, festooned on both banks with miles of a whitish blossom that I was not familiar with. A thick mist lay over the river the entire day, which was overcast and constantly threatening rain. The mysterious, white hedge reminded me of a Whitman poem that I had recently reread, which begins:

Spontaneous me, Nature,
The loving day, the mounting sun, the friend I am happy with,
The arm of my friend hanging idly over my shoulder,
The hillside whitened with blossoms of the mountain ash . . .

It’s a nature poem, which in Whitman, is indistinguishable from sex. Not by accident is the sun “mounting.”

Calicoon has a farmers market, which was bustling on this Sunday of a long weekend. The prices were 1/3 higher than those in Manhattan, which suggests its patrons are mostly well-heeled city dwellers enjoying their country retreats. Many of the towns no longer can rely on local agriculture or other productive endeavors and are forced to use their natural setting to pull in weary urbanites and hope they leave some cash behind.

After some confused consultation with the locals, I settled on River Road, whose name suggested it would follow the Delaware as far north as I wanted to go. This turned out to be not only a prescient but a delightful choice, a cathedral-like setting with light traffic. I spent hours encountering only an occasional car and even hit a patch of dirt road before returning to the New York side and tumbling finally into the town of Deposit. You can see the local church in this picture [above right] and perhaps can make out the lettering on its side: JESUS LOVES YOU, DEPOSIT. Perhaps adding “NY” would have been a more prudent communication strategy.

The route: Old 17 out of Wurtsboro to Rock Hill and Monticello, 17B due west to Bethel, picking up country road 178 northwest into the Delaware River park lands. At Calicoon, NY, crossing the river to the Pennsylvania side, then following River Road north all the way until it tracks route 17 again going WNW, including a stretch on Old State Road and Winterdale Road through the State Game Lands (dirt only for a stretch) Penn-York road, Faulkner Road, River Road (gain), 53 to Deposit. Wurtsboro to Bethel, 23 miles, to Calicoon, 12.5 miles, final stretch to Deposit, 40 miles, based on using the main highway. Total 75, add 5 for indirect routes: 80 miles through hilly terrain.