Prof. Dr. Gen. Petraeus

God, the poor man!

Ex-General Petraeus has apparently landed a professorship with my old employer, the City University of New York. There are a number of reasons why I’m glad we won’t be colleagues, having more to do with the institution than the poor hag-ridden General.

Is that a self-tortured face, or what? Do you even get to be a general these days without doing irreparable, visible violence to your own soul? I doubt it. Or at any rate, I would like to doubt it.

The General’s appointment has stirred some grumbling among the greybeard liberal rabotniks on CUNY’s instructional assembly line. Good Lord. Where have these people been for the last what, thirty years? Do they really have no idea at all what their employer’s core business is?


Bike New York's executive cadre

I love cycling, always have. I cycle to work every day that I can, and I well remember the giddy sense of liberation I had, at about the age of eight, when I realized my little bike could take me anywhere; no one would know, no one would stop me. The whole rural county I lived in was mine for the pedaling. A much bigger deal, for me, than getting my driver’s license another eight years later; and I knew, even then, that it was a much more real and substantial kind of autonomy and self-determination.

Never much liked official, sanctioned group rides, however — though Critical Mass has always been fun, precisely because it’s unofficial and so un-sanctioned that it drives the cops insane.

So I have never participated in the Five Borough Bicycle Tour (5BBT for short), a somewhat anodyne event held on the first Sunday in May here in My Fair City, Noo Yawk.

And now, I never will. This year, the organizers, a respectable, corporate-sponsored outfit called Bike New York (BNY), have decided to get with the National Irrational Panic Program (NIPP) and forbid participants from carrying backpacks, hydration packs, panniers, front or rear baskets on their bicycles… the list goes on and on.

Apparently BNY is going to hire private ‘security’ goons to enforce this policy, and these apes will confiscate any contraband items. Potential riders have been sternly warned that any items confiscated “will not be returned.”

I was quite disappointed in the response of my fellow cyclists to this enormity. Some actually liked the idea, and thought it would make them ‘safer’ in some way — though it’s impossible for me to see how. Others thought it was a little excessive and annoying but it wouldn’t stop them riding. Many were quite willing to make excuses for the management of BNY, to the effect that the New York cops “made them do it” — much as those bad old Republicans are making Obie cut Social Security benefits.

Nobody, but nobody seems to have shared my indignation.

Let’s look a bit more closely at this excuse — the Devil made ’em do it. How, exactly, did the cops make BNY do this? Seems to be the obvious question, right? Yet nobody could, or would, answer it.

I don’t believe even the cops themselves have the power — yet — to ban, and confiscate, a backpack on a public street. Oh, okay, maybe in effect — in effect, they can do anything, of course — but not in theory.

Speaking of theory: presumably BNY itself has the power, in theory, to require anything of participants: you have to wear a helmet, you have to wear a bulletproof vest, you have to have an American flag tattooed on your ass and display it to any officious jackanapes who demands a sight of it.

It’s not clear what recourse BNY would have, in any rational society, for cases of violation. They could, I suppose, ask the bad-actor to leave and call the cops if he didn’t. But where the hell do they get off thinking they can ‘confiscate’ your stuff? And keep it?

As for the cops: I suppose they could have said, Put these bans in place or we’ll pull your permit. Again it’s not clear that they have, in theory, or even in practice, the right to make any such demand: what would be next — making the Catholic Church give every participant in the St Patrick’s parade a breathalyzer test? At the church’s expense?

But even if the cops could, in theory or practice, impose such requirements as a condition of permitting, BNY, as far as I can tell, didn’t put up any fight at all. Rather, they seem to have eagerly embraced the opportunity to be police auxiliaries — with self-awarded, more-than-police powers.

No doubt the real police love this — getting a bunch of earnest do-gooders on bikes to be more police than the police. And I’m sure the real police will be out in force, collecting overtime against their suburban mortgages, ready and eager to nightstick anybody who refuses an order from the amateur police that not even the real police are empowered to issue.

Ingenious, eh? The privatization of totalitarianism. It’s like the way freedom of speech doesn’t exist inside a shopping mall — or even in the parking lot. Private property, you know. The landlord can make whatever rules he likes. Presumably the streets given over to BNY for this tour are considered to be privatized pro tem — only official participants are allowed to be there, and official participants must comply with the organizer’s rules.

BNY has lined itself right up with this program, as far as I can tell. Of course that’s not surprising, or not entirely surprising, anyway. They’re the kind of official charity that depends on goodwill from the authorities and fears bad PR more than cholera; the kind whose notion of activism is treating a city bureaucrat or minor elected to lunch, and occasionally submitting a mild Op-End tentatively suggesting that hey, bikes ain’t so bad:

What’s a bit more puzzling to me is the craven, compliant attitude of most of my fellow-cyclsts. I suppose the only excuse you can make for them is that they’re all pretty well-educated, as that term is understood on these shores.

Sometimes I’m tempted to believe in progress

I can log into the online OED using my New York Public Library card number!

Of course Perseus has always been completely open, though over-featurized, and for the fine old standard lexica and concordances, is actually terrific, intuitive and easy to use. (Use the ‘C’ option on a selected verse).

TLG has a subset of the corpus available for free searching, though a full subscription is still $125 a year. Grrrr. But the subset isn’t too bad.

Even Jstor, which has come in for some abuse in these pages, now allows unaffiliated researchers to sign up for an individual account. This provides mingily limited free reading of some material, and also gives the opportunity to buy items. These seem to run about $12 a pop, from what I’ve seen, which is daylight robbery, of course. I wonder if this grudging pinchfist aggiornamento antedates or postdates Jstor’s encounter with Aaron Swartz, which was really bad for Aaron and should have better for Jstor — should at least have taught those Pere Goriots of the intellectual world more than it apparently has.

Somebody really needs to hit JSTOR upside the head. Hard.

Bulletin from the madhouse

Everybody needs a little comic relief, and some of mine comes from an outfit called the Foreign Policy Initiative, a groupuscule of Zionist frothers headed by William Kristol. I am on their email list, and every few days, Chicken Little comes howling onto my screen, a very Angry Bird indeed, proclaiming that the towelheads are on the march.

Today’s Jeremiad was about Syria — as many are. Here’s the lead:

The White House’s April 25th letter to congressional leaders states “Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.”

Not exactly a stop-the-presses item, right? FPI supplements this meagre fare, noting that Saddam Hussein used sarin — boy, does that take me back — and so did those Japanese guys, back in the 90s. Apparently Britain and France and Qatar also think, or say they think, that Baby Assad has used sarin, although their reasons for thinking so, if they really do, are nowhere stated.

What this is all supposed to add up to is anybody’s guess.

Obama is quoted trying to sound tough:

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

It’s funny, isn’t it? Even though the awful man really is a dangerous homicidal nutcase and it’s obvious he’d just as soon drone you as look at you, he always sounds unconvincing, and a bit of a sissy, really, when he tries to strike this understated hard-guy note. (Unlike Maggie Thatcher, who always sounded just as dangerous as she was; in fact, you had the feeling that she keeping the lid on it a bit, not quite saying all the wild stuff she was thinking.)

Somehow the Psalmic parallelism of ‘calculus’ and ‘equation’ manages to undercut both — as if he were second-guessing himself as he speaks. Maybe it’s because he repeats the same verb. If there were a Psalm 151 — Dronendi sunt — this verse would have read ‘It reviseth my calculus; it augmenteth my equation, yea, even unto the exponents thereof.’

‘Change my equation.’ Imagine a guy saying this to you in person. You would of course mock him, wouldn’t you? Oh yeah? How’s the old equation hangin’ these days? I bet it could use a change. What with Michelle and all.

The bug that has invaded Billy Kristol’s ass about Syria has a number of brothers and cousins, many of whom have been reduced to lodging in the nether orifices of even lesser beings than the vilipendious Kristol. Some of these parasites, in fact, have been desperate enough to seek shelter in the penetralia of some contributors to my Lefty mailing lists, who have become at least as keen as Billykins is to see the Syrian ‘regime'(*) deposed by incubaries of popular revolution like Britain and France and Qatar and the US.

Oh and Israel, did I mention Israel?

Their thinking, insofar as I understand it, is admirably simple. Assad is a bad guy. His ‘regime’ isn’t revolutionary. It isn’t even ‘progressive’. It’s ‘bourgeois’. And besides, he fights dirty.

Being on the same side of the argument with Raver-In-Chief William Kristol — and, of course, with Israel, that plague unto the nations — doesn’t disturb these folks. If you ask them about it, they will smugly tell you that the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend. So the hell with Assad.

This observation is, of course, trivially and obviously true; but then, who ever proposed Assad — or the current Kim, for that matter — as a ‘friend’? And the enemy of your enemy is still, well, the enemy of your enemy. Don’t you want your enemies to have other enemies besides yourself?

Indeed, all this talk about ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’ seems a bit childish anyway, doesn’t it? And it doesn’t really get at the underlying problem that I sense among my Assad-buggered comrades.

They seem to live in a kind of one-dimensional space, where you can plot everybody’s position out on a left-right axis, from bourgeois to revolutionary, from Gregory XVI to Lenin. All that matters is where they fall on the line; politics is a simple matter of scorecarding. Sarin? Check. Elections? Check. The interactions among all ‘regimes’ that don’t at least make the ‘progressive’ cut are simply a matter of no interest; zero-sum Brownian motion, without any implications for anybody but themselves. Assad’s loss is Israel’s gain, but so what? It’s just a matter of shifting assets among ‘bourgeois’ pockets, and it doesn’t change anything. The idea that Israel’s gain, even balanced by Assad’s loss, might somehow be a net gain for the bad guys, seems quite foreign to these folks.

(*) What, you mean you can’t tell the difference between a regime and a government? Don’t tell anybody, but neither can I.

Memo to self…

…Don’t watch TV. Don’t even watch TV news clips on Youtube, if you value your sanity.

After watching some coverage of the manhunt — the ludicrously ill-managed and foolish manhunt — for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I was neck-deep in the Slough of Despond about my fellow Amurricans. Considering learning modern Icelandic — I did the mediaeval version some years ago — and moving there. Hot springs! Tall capable blondes! Debt renunciation! What’s not to like?

Why, if I still had a little boat, I could practically sail there, given a good stretch of weather.

I have never been a big flag-waver, and never felt that Amurricans were better or smarter or more industrious or superior, really, in any other way, to the denizens of other lands, but then, on the other hand, I always sorta thought we probably weren’t much worse. I mean, consider the Germans. Bygones and all that, but facts are facts, and it’s not quite ancient history. Not to mention more recent horrors, like Angela Merkel and the Bundesbank, and those awful barking tourists you can’t get away from in Italy.

I have some very smug expat friends who never tire of telling me how much better ‘European social democracy’ is than the tooth-and-claw setup we have here. (Never mind that European social democracy every day gets more like what we have here. As Zeno pointed out a long time ago, there’s no such thing as motion; only position. Liberals are, it seems, great admirers of Zeno.)

Oh, and how much better educated Yurrupeans are than we are, and how the beer is so much better, and so on.

Now the news coverage of the Boston Follies didn’t make me like Yurrup — that mythical land — any more (or any less). But it really tempted me to like my own country a lot less.

Turns out things aren’t quite so bad — though needless to say, they’re bad enough. Interesting item in the Times today — yes, wiseacre, I occasionally dip into the Times. So sue me. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, as somebody said.

Polls Show Growing Resolve to Live With Terror Threat

Public opinion surveys conducted since the bombings last week at the Boston Marathon indicate that most Americans — while convinced future attacks are quite likely — don’t feel personally threatened by terrorism, and an increasing share of the public is skeptical about sacrificing personal freedoms for security.

The headline, of course, is pure NY Times blockheaddery: terror threat, my ass. By any rational standard, we ought to be a lot more frightened of SUVs than terrorists. And ‘resolve’ is idiotic too; if you read the story, what it shows is more like indifference. Been there, done that, excite me with something new now.

And the numbers too are rather a mixed picture: 70% were still, according to the story, ‘concerned about the possibility of more major terrorist attacks’. But then, who knows how the question was actually framed, or contextualized, and even this summary title contains more weasel words than there are weasels in the Black Forest. In Germany.

Otherwise, it’s fairly good news — not deliriously good, just fairly good. Short piece, worth a glance and some rumination. I’d enjoy hearing how others read this particular swill of sodden tea-leaves.

Wretched excess…

… as usual. The Boston and Massachusetts cops, and I suppose the FBI and God knows who else, literally had a field day in the home of the bean and the cod today. Gunplay! Car chases! Infrared imaging from helicopters! Heavy exchanges of fire — with a 19-year-old in a ball cap. A whole SMSA(*) in ‘lockdown’ — America’s favorite word, for the last few years. Oh how we love a lockdown — more even than we used to love a parade. Lock me down, baby. Lock me down!

It is perhaps worth noting that the Authorities have not exactly covered themselves with glory. In spite of the ludicrous disproportion between the forces they command and those their target had at his disposal, he led them a merry chase.

I’m really glad the boat came through it OK.

(*) Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area, for those who aren’t Census Bureau geeks.

Never attribute to stupidity what can be explained by malice

A bear of very little brain

There’s been much moaning recently — some of it on this very site — about how stupid Americans are, this supposed stupidity being much in evidence after the Boston bombs went off, and the usual loons started tweeting their usual shit: Kill the Arabs, etc. etc.

Stupidity in others is an attractive explanation, particularly if you think you’re rather a clever fellow yourself. Of course this very fact renders it suspect as an hypothesis.

I don’t like this explanation. I don’t think we’re stupid. I think we’re kind of evil, really. And I think we’re evil mostly because we’re citizens of the Top Country, which is to say, soldiers in the garrison of the Death Star.

It’s not an intrinsic evil; we weren’t born evil, or at least not in this particular way. Nor is it a consciously, freely-chosen evil: I am determined to prove a villain, as old Dick Crookback observes somewhere. No, it’s a path-of-least-resistance evil; and really, nobody can be blamed for taking that path.

An evil you can’t blame people for? Isn’t that ‘kind of an oxymoron’, as I was once asked by some pretentious film-school bore, sporting what Rabelais calls a ‘great buggerly beard’, after I had produced what I thought was a rather Wildean paradox.

Well yes, asshole, in a word, it is. Kind of. Which just goes to show that at least one is not entirely on the wrong track. Once everything starts to fall out nicely from first principles, you can be sure you’ve gone off the rails.

We’re a bad bunch, we Amurricans, in many ways. Most of all, we’ve been compromised by our buy-in to the imperial idea.

The kill-em-all crowd are a small, particularly crazed minority; most of us would want to stop short of that — maybe it would suffice just to decimate them all. The Lesser Evil!

But I think we all have that brain-bug in our heads. It’s almost an everyday incident to meet some personable, kind, even heroic American individual — somebody who’s supporting a Down syndrome kid and a mom with Alzheimer’s, and who still somehow finds a way to walk the world with a smile on his face and a ready capacity for companionable mirth.

But when the conversation turns, in spite of all your efforts, to the towelheads — then the evil comes out. It’s not usually ‘kill ’em all’ — not quite — but the killer impulse is distinctly present.

There’s a coarse old joke, which I’ve always thought explains a lot:

Q: Why does a dog lick his own balls?
A: Because a dog can lick his own balls.

Cheap theater


Apologies for the heeling cellphone picture, taken in much haste and somewhat furtively: I was afraid a sniper in that erectile cophoister would pick me off without a by-your-leave.

These silly things have been, pardon the phrase, popping up all over the place since the bombs went off in Boston — not that they need an excuse; I’ve been seeing them, though in rather smaller numbers, for a couple of years now. Clearly the cops love ’em.

This particular Tinker Toy is in Jersey City, on the wrong side of the Hudson from New York. Dunno how many JCPD has, but NYPD has dozens — maybe hundreds, for all I know. Hell, every individual New York cop may have one, parked in his Rockland County driveway.

The NYC version is even more risible: It’s basically a sort of high-top panel van, which extrudes through its roof a preposterous little glassed-in crow’s nest. Dark glass, of course, to be extra-scary:


The whole effect reminds me very much of this little guy:

Marvin the Martian

I hate to go all semiotic on youse, but this really is all pure theater, isn’t it? Just like all that nonsense at airports, and like the latex gloves which all public functionaries now wear, whenever they might come into actual contact with one of us. The symbolism of that one is consecration aginst impurity, like those Cohens in airplanes who worry that they might fly over a cemetery, and take appropriate measures to avoid ritual pollution:

Orthodox gent wrapped in plastic on an airplane

Actually I think this is so extravagant it’s rather admirable, and there’s no smokescreen of clinical rationality attempting to make it look like good sound utilitarian public policy. And I can see why a cemetery might be treyf, particularly for a Cohen. But the cops’ and toll-takers’ rubber gloves are saying that the people who pay their salaries are treyf.

Behind the Jersey City cops’ stiffy is one of my favorite public monuments. When I first saw it, I thought, Golly, somebody out there hates marching bands as much as I do. But no. This is a monument to the Katyn massacre, erected by the good Polish people of Jersey City, a folk with great depth of feeling but, it appears, a high tolerance for bathos.

Did Polish officers really wear an outfit like that in the Thirties? If so, one is almost tempted to say they were asking for it. Like mimes. Mimes can’t get life insurance, did you know that? True fact.

Like a grievance magnet, the plinth of this monument has attracted lumpish bronze accretions commemorating other injuries. On one side there’s a cartoonlike bas-relief remembering the Poles who were sent to Siberia, and on the other a more recent mass of metal showing the Virgin Mary — at least, I assume it is She — cuddling the twin towers of the former world trade center(*). This one interestingly shows in its foreground the very monument on which it is mounted, bayonet protruding from the drum major’s breast and all. Nice touch. I didn’t look closely enough to see whether there was a tiny Nineleven plaque on the depicted plinth, and another tinier one inside that…. There was some book I used to read my kids that had an infinite regress like that in it: Goodnight Moon? Can’t recall.

(*) Referred to by some of us as Nelson and David, after the Rockefeller brothers who fobbed those hulking horrors upon us in the first place.

Bang. Bang.

Oh well, that's all right, then

One wonders whether the good citizens of Boston will now feel a little more sympathetic toward their fellow-innocents in Afghanistan.

Naah. Dream on.

Obie’s first response, of course, was to assure us that someone somewhere would certainly be punished. Golly, that makes me feel a lot better. You?

It’s always difficult to explain, to normal people, my heartless response to events like this. It’s a kind of pedantry, really. I don’t lose any sleep over the thirty killed with My Tax Dollars(tm) today in Afghanistan; I would be a better person if I did; but I don’t. And yet I have enough respect for our common humanity that I won’t lose any more over the casualties in Boston.

Nobody seems to have any idea yet who perpetrated the Boston massacrette; the one thing that’s fairly certain is that it was not the result of a US drone strike. There would have been a lot more dead if it were.

Unrelated, you say? Dragged in by the heels? I think not. Maybe it’s blowback — which is certainly related — or maybe it’s just another instance of domestic homicidal craziness, like Oklahoma City. But either way it goes to the heart of who we are as a people. On the one hand: You mess with people, you gotta be ready for them to strike back. And on the other hand, if we’re that crazy — and we certainly are — what made us that way?