Saturday, March 24, 2018

Readin & Writin: Atomic Accidents, One Summer, The Way of All Flesh, O. Henry, James Gallant


Given the facts about the effects of the livestock industry on the life system, our health and the animals, meat-eaters are nudged toward vegetarianism, vegetarians towards veganism. Denial of course kicks in quickly for many. Given the facts about nuclear power and weapons, the devastating accidents, already upon us and hanging over us always potentially, with its expense, its mind-bogglingly long-term waste, its devilishly complicated design and proliferation issues, the average person shudders and takes a stand against. The average nuclear physicist or technician, enthralled with the intricate technical challenges, may acknowledge the dangers and expense but in the end, overwhelmingly, like the meat-eater, comes down in favor.

Thus comes down James Mahaffey in his book, Atomic Accidents, A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters. Despite Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima (and many others), all discussed quite objectively in the book, with just the slightest pro-nuke coloration, he jumps to a conclusion little different than the propaganda we've heard over the years. True, he is grounded in knowledge that allows him to pounce upon mis-readings and misunderstandings among the non-scientist opposition but still, we're talking about boiling water here. Well, and destroying civilization - the slow way or the fast way. But to the scientist, all this is understandably fascinating. It's a bit like religion. The first one that gets ahold of you, you usually stick to. Why isn't the challenge of intermittency for solar and wind as fascinating a challenge? Seems reasonable to assume that it could be met given the billions spent on nuclear. Some claim that it is already met. See Arjun Makhijani's, Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free, A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy, a free download at (Institute for Energy & Environmental Research). Then there is the disturbing fact Harvey Wasserman points out, that every nuclear reactor is a pre-positioned nuclear device to a terrorist.

Bill Bryson is an entertaining writer. His, A Brief History of Nearly Everything starts out by explaining that the Universe as we know it is rather roomy. And he does try to cover everthing the development of science has revealed. To keep it interesting he often lingers on dramatic threats, like the fact that the whole of Yellowstone is a potential magma explosion, perhaps relieved or delayed by the effusions of Old Faithful and the like. Were the explosion to occur we would have basically the same effect as nuclear winter with a massive dust cloud blocking the sun for longer than civilization can probably stand, at least the U.S. version. And this explosion happens to be well overdue if you believe in geologic patterns. His One Summer is lighter fare. Everything in the book pivots from some event that happened in the summer of 1927. Lindberg's crossing the Atlantic, Al Capone's corrupting presence in Chicago, talking movies, broadway plays and the exodus to Hollywood of its finest actors, Henry Ford's Model T and A, the decisions that locked in the coming stock market crash, Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt. And, as they say, more! A very fun read for your beach trip.

Now I had heard somehow of the book by Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh. At one time I scoured yard sales picking up paperback classics by anyone I ever heard of in the great book department. This I recently found in my collection, so yellowed and brittle that, after a few pages I decided to get a hardback copy from the library. I even wrote a song, stealing the title without having read it in 1990, The Way of the Flesh (see Well I've always been impressed by people who can talk, or write and this guy, Sam Butler is one, not as witty perhaps as Sam Clemens, but still, eloquent and knowledgeable enough to impress me, and keep me reading. He is constantly meandering off his story with little asides exploring human psychology, usually ending with an indeterminate dismissal of the subject as hopelessly controversial. As I'm only a few chapters into it I have little to report other than it fits into the late 19th century oeuvre of master writers, some claiming it as standing very near the tippy top of the genre.

Speaking of eloguence and mastery of language, I seem to remember an early television series called O. Henry, based on his short stories (real name William Sidney Porter). The writer, similar approximate time-frame to Butler, interestingly spent some time in prison where he began to develop the craft of, as my friend Jim Marsh calls it, scribbling. Poor bloke had only ten years to write, dying with 23 cents in his pocket. I put one of his books on library hold and when I picked it up needed help to carry it to the car. I can only take it a short story at a time for it weighs heavily on my lap. I've developed a callous and a crink in my left hand holding it up, turning the pages with my right. So far it is situated in Central America where the author spent some time. He is noted for his kind of Rod Serling-esgue twists in the endings without the metaphysical aspect. I am going to have to renew this one more than once, coming in at 1400 pages.

I'll end this sojourn with a reference to the new James Gallant e-book I've acquired, Whatever Happened to Ohio?. It has a wonderful hot-air baloon cover image to kind of lure you into the whimsical fantasy aspect of the tale. Said tale is highly populated, shifting from character to character in a tentativly bewildering mix which I trust, knowing Gallant's skills, will evolve into some mightily interesting, clever and satisfying resolution. The proof is in his earlier book, The Big Bust at Tyrone's Rooming House, set in my Atlanta neighborhood. This is the first e-book I've read and I do declare, it has some appealing features. It certainly isn't heavy in my lap.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Deep State, the Fall of the Constitution and Rise of a Shadow Government by Mike Lofgren


Mike Lofgren's Deep State does not, as I expected, delve into the secretive intelligence agencies but rather studies the mostly corporate oligarchy, their lobbyists and the bureacracy whose prime motivation is job security and advancement. Such factions are served by policies that perpetuate the status quo and resist reform. Whether these policies promote the general welfare is a matter of indifference, if not hostility to the players. The CIA, NSA etc; have their role but as servants not masters. Lofgren's very nicely written prose is embedded with intriquing and devastating tidbits on the Deep State, like these:

  • After 28 years as congressional staff member I increasingly viewed all political ideologies as mental and emotional crutches, substitute religions: for leaders, a means of manpulating attitudes and behaviors; for the rank and file, a lazy surrogate for problem solving and a way of fulfilling the craving to belong to something bigger than oneself.
  • Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich employed chaos, polarization and scapegoating to carry out a divide-and-rule strategy, destroying what bi-partisanship had existed previously.
  • A clique of neoconservative ideologues, both inside and outside the Bush administration, abetted at every step by the mainstream media, acted as carnival barkers for the most destructive and self-defeating policies since Vietnam.
  • I told whoever would listen that the “slam dunk” evidence of Hussein's weapons of mass destruction was weak and that by invading Iraq the U.S. might be purchasing its very own West Bank on steroids. The total bill for Iraq summed up to a nice, round trillion dollars.
  • The U.S. economy was mutating into a casino with a tilted wheel, a Wall Street constructed heads-I-win-tails-you-lose Ponzi scheme resulting in the meltdown of 2008.
  • The twin shocks of 9/11 and the Great Recession seem mentally to have unhinged a portion of the people and much of the political class. Thus followed crazy arguments about the president's birth certificate, death panels and voters shouting that the government must get its hands off their government-provided Medicare.
  • A new crop of Tea Party freshman announced that their first priority was to drive the country into a sovereign debt default. The circus was being run from the monkey cage.
  • Our venerable institutions have outwardly remained the same but they have grown more and more resistant to the popular will as they have become hardwired into a corporate and private influence network with almost unlimited cash to enforce its will.
  • The rural counties of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, large areas of Detroit, Cleveland, Camden and many other U.S. cities, qualify as third-world. At the same time, wealth beyond computation piles up in the money center of New York and the technology hub of Palo Alto, enough to purchase a $95,000 truffle, a $38 million vintage Ferrari or $179 million Picasso before the balance is parked in an off-shore hiding place.
  • These are symptoms of a shadow government that pays little heed to the plain words of the Constitution.
  • The Deep State is the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism, militarization of foreign policy, financialization and deindustrialization of the U.S. economy and the rise of plutocracy.
    A tidbit also from the book is that the author is a former Reaganite whose 28 years on the Hill gave him a close-up of the sausage-making, which tranformed (radicalized) the way he saw the world. The above bullet points all come from the first 5 pages of the introduction. The book is full of them. Here are a few more or less randomly selected from deeper in:
  • A Kennedy quote, “D.C. Is a town of northern charm and southern efficiency.”, injects a little humor to the discouraging list.
  • Sam Ervin the much-loved, Shakespeare-quoting chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee Watergate hearings was also the author of The Southern Manifesto, a document urging defiance of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education.
  • Those who bray about “family values” fail to consider that the modern U.S. economy is increasingly unable to deliver the stable, well-paid jobs, medical insurance and family leave that make such a way of life possible.
  • Politicians are too busy raising money and looking over their shoulder to do much socializing.
  • At frequent points during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the tongue-tied George W. Bush sorely needed the mellifluous double-talk of British prime minister Tony Blair, on the theory that nothing sells hideously awful policy as well as an Oxford accent.
  • If the American people did not voluntarily give informed consent to the web of unaccountable influence that radiates from Washington and permeates the country, then their passive acquiescence, aided by false appeals to patriotism and occasional doses of fear, surely played a role.
  • A lot of money is changing hands, both in campaign fund-raising and honararia to government personnel whose “distinguished” careers set them up for a payday beyond imagining for most U.S. citizens.
  • When Obama, for once, sought a negotiated solution to a problem in the Middle East rather than unilaterally employing force, Republicans presented a nearly united wall of opposition.
  • Do the citizens of the U.S. consciously decide with their votes that the safety of their drinking water is a lesser priority than delivering suitcases of off-the-books cash to a corrupt satrap running Afghanistan?
These entertaining bullet points are merely a sampling of the multitude of mixed joys you'll encounter in the writing of this career bureaucrat, before he sets down some suggestions as to what it might take to overcome the latest guilded age. The first on that 9 item list is “Eliminate private money from public elections.” The others are: sensibly downsize and redeploy the military and intelligence complex; stay out of the Middle East; redirect the peace dividend to domestic infrastructure improvement; enforce antitrust laws; reform tax policy (to get corporations paying their share); reform immigration policy; adopt a single-payer health care system; abolish corporate personhood status. He details those proposals and closes his book on an optimistic note – We are situated to where we can turn this around, despite our many institutional flaws and the accretion of ideological myths that have impaired our ability to see the world as it is and live sensibly and peacably within it.

From a conservative Reagan appointee to this list of recommendations is quite a leap and exactly the transformation needed for a critical mass of the remaining Reaganites and fellow travelers, if we are to avoid social and environmental catastrophe.