September 5th, 2005

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We become dead

Death has been on my mind a lot recently. Oh it's been on everyone's mind, thanks to the hurricane, but it's more than that. The step-father of a childhood friend of mine is dying. He's been dying for about 18 months, but now he's really dying. He's gone from a wheelchair to a deathbed. From the mind being sharp but the flesh unwilling to not even recognizing a friend of 20 years. The cancer's in his brain now, and there's no turning back.

I remember him in the prime of middle age. A tall, thin man who I saw nearly every weekend when I went over to play with William at their farm. He seemed almost from another era, stern and proper but never unkind. He wasn't one to show emotions, at least when I was around, but his love came through in his actions and the calm, open patience he always showed. He knew his role as a stepfather was not to be the primary parent but rather an open loving male presence to be called upon when needed and sometimes distanced from when that was needed too. The other thing about him was that for as long as I could remember he couldn't eat salt. High blood pressure and bad cholesterol. At every meal our families shared the fact that David couldn't have salt was brought up and dealt with, as inherent to the fabric of the thing as asking people what they wanted to drink or washing the dishes afterward.

It wasn't the salt that got him though. It was the cancer. In the end he couldn't eat fat because of the damage done to his digestive system and his oral food intake was basically restricted to sorbet and other easily digested innocuous substances.

It's a matter of days now, and I just keep remembering the man he was and thinking about William who has now lost two fathers in less than a quarter of a century. I remember when I was 8 and got excited because David wrote about Will and I playing in the snow together in one of those country life things in the New York Times*, for which he was an editor. I remember making apple cider from their orchards and watching David putter around in the workshop. He always took good care of himself and seemed like the kind of man who'd last into his 80's, still puttering in the workshop and worrying about how much salt was in a cup of blueberry yogurt.

That's not the way life works, though. Death can strike at any moment, a fate so horrible that mankind has spent its entire sentient existence fantasizing postscripts to the end just so we don't have to deal with the finality of it. Each person is a world unto himself, and knowing that our own little worlds are going to end some day...well...we're always living in the end times.

And I think about the thousands who lost their lives in New Orleans. The hundreds who stayed out of choice because they could not imagine dying, they could not imagine the world going dark forever, and of course my own imminent demise. I think about how I've abused and misused my body, though my doctor says it's not too late, and the fact that I could have cancer, or an aneurysm right now and I would not even know it.

I think about those things and I am scared, and guilty for being scared when others have more reason to and while my friend's father is dying. I think about the grim irony of life being a terminal disease and about wasted hours and letters never sent.

Death is coming for all of us, riding a pale horse and without any concept of mercy. Without any concept of concept. As implacable and unstoppable as a freight train. Or a hurricane.

Maybe tomorrow I will have something to say about how death makes the little moments of life worth living and is part of the achingly beautiful tragedy of human existence but for now I think about my friend's father on his bed, his mind already gone, and the people left in their attics in New Orleans out of food, water, and hope, and just for a second I despair. Ain't nobody gets out of life alive. Nobody.


*Let nobody question my bourgeois credentials again.
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Bush didn't bring the rain

One charge that I think Bush can be defended against is being the cause of the hurricane. The fact of the matter is that while global warming might have played a part in its severity (warmer water means stronger storms) the Bush administration is hardly responsible for the climate problems we are dealing with now. The Kyoto treaty wasn't a magic bullet that would have instantly cooled the earth, it was an attempt to put the brakes on what's been happening for decades. Climate change is gradual, partially a nature phenomenon, and difficult to parse. If there's a hurricane worse than Katrina 25 years from now we might look back to the last five years and that we did nothing to slow the change, but for now it's the past mistakes we are paying for, not the present.

Likewise Bush is not directly to blame for the mistakes made at the local and state levels in dealing with this disaster. There should have been a better evacuation plan, there should have been a quicker call for help. Levees have been a federal responsibility, but with the federal government dropping the ball the state should have stepped in and tried to do something. Everyone was complacent. Everyone shares in the blame. With thousands dead and billions of dollars in damages there's more than enough to share.

Certain people (you know who you are, Libbies) will point to the disaster as an example of the inherent failure of government to do its damn job. Certainly we'd all agree that protecting the lives of the citizenry should be a higher priority than handing out corporate welfare or futzing around with the arts, and that our government has failed in its most basic of duties in a way that as Americans we do not expect or find acceptable.

But is this a sign of the inherent weakness of government or merely the weakness of OUR government as it stands? The Netherlands once faced a disaster somewhat similar to this hurricane and its government built a series of flood control measures that have since kept its people bone dry despite half the country being below sea level. Likewise there is the question of whether the private sector can do better. The private sector failed just as surely as the public when it came to evacuation. Airlines canceled flights, bus depots closed down, car rental companies ran out of automobiles and didn't import more from nearby fleets.

I take the position of those who believe that its okay for human beings to drown or die of dysentery if they cannot afford the means to escape as de facto irrelevant because I will never hold to such a vicious and inhumane value system. We are left then with the question of what the best way to prevent this tragedy from repeating itself is. Is it to sell the levees off to the highest bidder and have them charge the city to maintain them? Is it to cancel any government subsidy for disaster or flood insurance thus providing a disincentive for people to live in areas prone to these sorts of things? Is it to get rid of FEMA altogether and hope private charities will take its place?

I firmly disagree with any of those assessments. The fact is that New Orleans, for all its irrational placement, has contributed more to the American economy than any private corporation thanks to its service as a critical port both during American ascendance and even recently. The oil refineries aren't down there because they naturally occur, they are there because it's the easiest place to ship oil to if you want to reach the middle of the country. New Orleans culture is an irreplaceable treasure that helped birth many of the 20th century's greatest artists, and provided a backdrop and proving ground for other great works of art. Cajun cuisine was fusion cooking before fusion cooking was hot.

What we need to do is fight corruption at every level, Democratic and Republican. We need to take back our government and take control. Cut corruption and you can have the best of both worlds, lower taxes and necessary services. The fight must be multi-faceted. It must be local, structural, and ultimately, a battle for hearts and minds. Corruption and incompetence in government happen for the same reasons they do in the private sphere. Ultimately it's about values. Right now we are a society that values one thing above all others. A society that venerates and prays to a single god.

Money.

Unless that changes more lives will be washed away in another storm, and soon.

Some may say that fixing government is a pipe-dream fantasy. That battling materialism is like fighting to keep the sun from rising. That dreaming of a world where human lives matter more than bottom lines is like dreaming about unicorns. I'd like to share the words of a man who represented another group of people who dreamed of unicorns.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Fellow citizens our safety and happiness have been compromised and George Bush is a symptom not a cause. If Hurricane Katrina reminds us of anything, besides that despite intelligent levitation theory water does, in fact, run downhill, it should be that government is not effecting our safety or our happiness right now. Instead it's effecting its own aggrandizement and a wealth transfer from the citizenry to the favored few.

We need another revolution, desperately. It doesn't have to be armed, but it has to be drastic. The Democrats and the Republicans are institutional stagnation and neither offers more than warmed over bullshit. I'm tired of subsisting politically on the bullshit diet. It's worse than fucking Atkins.

The spirit of revolution is rising in this country, it is bubbling forth with no idea yet how to express itself, but it's rising. Let's try to channel it towards the good, shall we? Corruption is endemic to American government right now, but it doesn't have to be. Whatever we do let's not let ourselves be suckered into thinking it does.
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Bye bye Mr. Rehnington Pie

I didn't really think to write anything on the supreme court turmoil, since all of a sudden it seems a rather minor thing, but iconoclast IMed me late one night to get my opinion and I never got back to him.

My opinion of Rehnquist isn't all that important. Needless to say I was not a fan, and I will not venerate him in death. I don't believe that someone who believed in Plessy v. Ferguson and engaged in harassment of black voters (at least earlier in life) should ever have been on the supreme court.

But Rehnquist is dead and I take no joy in anyone's death. The question is what comes next. I think it's pretty clear that John Roberts will be confirmed as a supreme court justice. There's not enough solid facts about him for the Democrats to expend the necessary political capital to block him, and with two openings now available they need to save their strength in case someone truly heinous gets the new nomination. If Sandra Day O'Connor decides to stay on the court as a result of Rehnquist's death, a scenario that seems somewhat unlikely, this may shift, but for now his confirmation seems to be quite likely.

That being said it's interesting to me that Bush would nominate him as Chief Justice. I thought that that honor would go either to Scalia, for his rabidly conservative viewpoints, or to Clarence Thomas who would instantly become the nation's most prominent black conservative. I had expected Thomas, since he has obvious ties to Bush's father, he's younger than Scalia (Bush clearly wants to make his mark on the court, and he expects this chief justice to reign for quite some time) and the Republicans have made hay through use of prominent black conservatives to defray claims of racism and try to jar some of the African American vote from the hands of the Democrats. To choose Roberts brings up a bunch of issues. His youth is a definite positive, for the reasons above. It implies that Bush is more confident about Roberts' conservatism than many other Republican pundits, and it could potentially spark a power struggle within the court. Scalia and Thomas are both veterans of the Supreme Court while Judge Roberts has spent very little time on any bench, comparatively. His being vaulted ahead of them in line might rankle, especially since his youth makes it likely that neither Justice would ever get a shot at the Chief justice slot that at least Scalia seems to covet. With the opening of the papacy the Catholic church chose to go the opposite direction, putting an old man in charge in what is clearly going to be a transitional role, and I thought Bush would do the same.

It could also imply that Bush is aware of how low his political capital is and doesn't think he could push Scalia or Thomas through right now. That makes the potential nominee for the second slot intriguing as well. Many people think it will be Alberto Gonzalez, a good friend of the President's and an important conservative Hispanic. The problem is, of course, that Gonzalez is seen as Bush's lapdog, and wrote torture memos that bother those members of the Senate who still care about such minor inconveniences as the United States constitution and the Geneva Convention. He might be a tough sell, and it will be interesting to see whether Bush floats his name to see which way the wind blows, tries to ram him through, or goes for someone a little less controversial. Personally I'd guess the latter, but I wouldn't be shocked to see Gonzalez come up for nomination, especially now that the less troublesome Roberts will assuage liberals about the status of the chief justice slot.

As for what these changes will do to the actual court itself...well that's not clear. Certainly it will become more conservative and Roe Vs Wade will be placed in jeopardy, but the fact is that this was bound to happen after Bush was coronated for a second term. It was already a forgone conclusion.

Personally I think that this Supreme Court shift is the least of our worries as a nation. The court is made up of professional lawyers, and unless a complete crazy ideologue sneaks his way into the black robes it will run more or less the same on most of the cases that come before it. The ones that it rules the wrong way on can generally be countered with legislation. I am sorry that Chief Justice Rehnquist died, but I don't think his death will create a great crisis regarding the Supreme Court.