Sunday, April 23, 2017

Tulips - Spring 2017

When the tulips bloom, it can only mean one thing - spring has arrived. Here in New Jersey, it looked like spring was arriving before St. Patrick's Day, but a late season snow storm followed by several weeks of below average temperatures threw Mother Nature for a loop. Fortunately, spring has (finally!) arrived. Please enjoy these photos and if you would like a high resolution copy, feel free to email me at - and follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Book Review - A Colony In A Nation

In 2000, a 21-year-old college student attended the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As he passed through the layers of security to enter the convention hall, about thirty dollars worth of marijuana was discovered in his backpack. Instead of confiscating the drugs and arresting the perpetrator, the police looked the other way, handing the bag (and the drugs) back to the stunned young man. Had Chris Hayes been black and not white, or traveling on I-95 instead of with his future father-in-law (who was a reporter covering the RNC), this story may have turned out differently. 

The thesis of Mr. Hayes’s second book, A Colony in a Nation, is that criminal justice policy, from policing to prosecution, the essential duty of maintaining law and order, is done much differently depending on your zip code and skin color. In the Nation, largely white, middle to upper-middle class, your interactions with the police are at worst a minor annoyance (being pulled over for speeding) but more commonly quite positive, as they quickly respond to any disturbance in your leafy suburban bubble of privilege. For inhabitants of the Colony, darker skinned and poorer, the opposite is true. Each interaction with the police is fraught with literal life and death consequences. 

As a card carrying member of the Nation - a white man educated at elite schools and with meaningful wealth, Hayes may seem like an odd vessel through which to frame our country as one that has elements of apartheid-era South Africa and a vague resemblance to the movie “District 9,” but his roots in social justice movements and his avowedly progressive viewpoint fit neatly with this inequitable view of society. Hayes has seen the tensest standoffs between citizens and police up close and personally and has a clear passion for his subject. 

But for all of Hayes’s insight, braininess, and clear interest in the subject, ACIAN too often felt like a survey course when what I wanted was a graduate-level seminar. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the book feels light. It is short (220 pages) but utilizes generous margins and spacing, giving it the feel of an overlong magazine article and not a full length examination of an important public policy issue. Much of the book is informed by Hayes’s own experiences - both as a child and teen growing up in New York City during (as he calls it) the “Crack Years” and as a journalist who covered the aftermath of high profile police-involved killings. But for someone who embraces rigor and evidence, focusing so much on the anecdotal and not the empirical was surprising. To be sure, there is some discussion of research - Hayes lays out some of the various theories on why crime has dropped so dramatically in our country, ultimately concluding that we don’t have one solid answer, but then skips right past a national spike in murders in 2015 with a quick parenthetical that they took place in a few large cities. Huh? 

Part of this is deciding where you want to focus your attention. It is already well-documented that there is a difference in outcomes for black and brown defendants as compared to white defendants for a variety of crimes and while skin color may play part of a role, so too does economics. Poor white people have no better access to legal representation than poor black or brown people, it is just that the concentration of what we consider “serious” crime is centered in smaller and smaller parts of the country. The irony is that the geographic “colony” continues to shrink, but the psychic area, the one that results in Skip Gates getting accosted at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, black students being harassed by college campus police, or your run-of-the-mill “driving while black” incidents is as large as ever. *That* question, of our basic racial prejudices, whether we are in a high-crime area of an inner city or a sheltered college campus, begs more attention and response. 

As Hayes notes, most crime is intra-racial and if we are most concerned about serious violent crime, we cannot ignore the fact it happens disproportionately in what Hayes calls the “colony.” Where I live, in Mercer County New Jersey, it would take a town like Princeton 20-30 years to match the number of murders that occur in Trenton in just one. Indeed, in any given year, 90 percent or more (sometimes all 100 percent) of murders that occur in Mercer County happen in Trenton. Should we ignore this? In fact, there are a handful of cities in New Jersey that account for almost every murder that occurs in our state. Law enforcement can only do so much - they are reacting to a host of socioeconomic factors that have been in play for decades, yet we expect them to strike a balance between effective policing and not being influenced by race. It is an almost impossible task yet most officers do it.  

While unequal policing, and particularly as it relates to low level, non- violent and other petty offenses, is well documented, the same does not extend to more serious crimes. As a Chicago native, I was surprised Hayes did not focus more of his attention on his home town, as it does, in miniature, reflect many of the achievements and failures of policing. On the one hand, large swaths of the city are safer now than they have been in decades, while small pockets are as dangerous as a war zone. And that is the thing - the dramatic reduction in violent crime since its apex in the late 1980s and early 1990s has shrunk the areas with significant problems considerably, but the concentration in those areas has become even more significant. 

Indeed, part of my problem with books of this ilk that attempt to contextualize policing is that they fail to take into account the other villains in the story - if you want to find near-complete-circle Venn diagrams, study areas of desperate poverty, high unemployment, low graduation rates, and yes, single parent households, you will find high levels of criminal activity as well. This has nothing to do with turning inner cities into some sort of District 9 segregation units, but rather, a broader failing of public policy. As Hayes rightly notes, we ask police to do a great number of other jobs they are ill-suited for, but that is because so many other institutions in society have failed. This in no way excuses the abhorrent treatment black and brown people often face, but at the same time, there are myriad examples of police doing the right thing, of going above and beyond, in service of the communities in which they work. 

There is also a schizophrenic aspect to Hayes’s writing. While he laments the ineffectiveness of internal investigations as a means of bringing rogue cops to heel, he also visits a police training academy to simulate real-world interactions between police and the community. Unsurprisingly, the latter results in Hayes’s appreciation for the difficult, split second decisions police officers have to make (in one simulation, Hayes is “killed” because he fails to see a man approaching him with a shotgun), but the sequencing is backwards in the book. The gee-those-guys-have-a-tough-job insight occurs early on, while the criticism of IA procedures is deep into the book. It also begs the question, what is the right number of officers disciplined for their actions? No one ever seems to have the answer to that, other than to highlight instances of particularly egregious behavior (Eric Garner comes to mind) that should rightly be prosecuted and punished. 

There was also a missed opportunity to highlight public policy that is trying to address some of these root causes. Hayes need only go from Brooklyn to Harlem to see the work of Geoff Canada or consider the expansion of his Harlem Children’s Zone model in communities throughout the country to see what works. A step further and the question of continued funding for such a program (dubbed “Promise Neighborhoods” at the federal level) under the Trump Administration would put the question in sharper relief and challenge policy makers who pay lip service to caring about the “colony” to put their money where their mouth is. And even as the parties squabble in Washington, Governor Cuomo recently announced a $1.4 billion initiative to revitalize areas of Brooklyn that will include increased access to health care, an anti-violence program and other prosocial efforts at community redevelopment. 

Similarly, the sea change that is occurring, literally before our eyes, in criminal justice policy could fill its own book. Juvenile justice reform has been championed in blood red Texas and bail reform just went into effect in deep blue New Jersey that releases most defendants from custody at their initial hearing. These ideas, along with recent shifts toward adopting more of a community policing model, are the green shoots that will one day sprout. For a journalist steeped in policy, it was surprising that these and other locally-led efforts did not merit acknowledgment in ACIAN

At the same time, what of the young boys and girls growing up in the “colony” who do not expect to live past 40, have missing family members who are deceased or incarcerated, and are educated in dilapidated schoolhouses by teachers who are doing their best to bail water out of a sinking ship? We could train an army of Officer Friendlys to walk the beat of every street corner in every dangerous neighborhood in America, but without the basic foundations that we think of as middle class life - economic opportunity, access to a good education, and health care - none of this matters. 

Interestingly, the last vignette Hayes shares is of observing a group of African-American teens harassing passers-by in Prospect Park. The needling shifts from annoying to criminal when one of the youths steals a man’s phone as he is pushing a baby stroller. Harmless? Maybe. Petty? Perhaps. But because it is impossible to know whether these youthful indiscretions are just that or nascent signs of a more serious criminal mentality is part of what makes enforcing the law, be it in the “nation” or the “colony” so challenging. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Friday, March 31, 2017

Why Flynn Might Flip

Distilling complex legalities into 140-character tweets is next to impossible and the "threaded" tweet storm can only do so much. That said, I put this together last night when word broke that retired General Michael Flynn is seeking immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony before Congress (and, presumably, federal prosecutors). 

A few additional thoughts here: First, the very public announcement of this "offer" indicates a couple of things to me - that investigators have already been in touch with Flynn (or his lawyer), that he has likely turned over some documents and/or had preliminary conversations about what legal jeopardy he may face; Second, that his after-the-fact registration as a foreign agent was done to mitigate some of that jeopardy in the same way some colleges "self-sanction" before the NCAA has a chance to drop the hammer in hopes of getting leniency; and Third, that Flynn *potentially* has that proverbial "story to tell" that would burn the city down. 

Keep in mind, prosecutors are only interested in flipping potential defendants if those smaller fish can offer up someone bigger - in this case, the only person of substance above Flynn in the Trump campaign/administration is Trump himself. Of course, prosecutors don't just hand out immunity deals - as my tweets note, a proffer with accompanying support would have to be made about what Flynn is prepared to testify to. Further, because prior prosecutions, particularly during Iran-Contra, were fouled up by public testimony before Congress that was then used in the prosecution of people like Ollie North and John Poindexter, federal prosecutors would likely request that Congress NOT go forward with any interview or hearing that included Flynn while their criminal investigation is ongoing.

All in all, this is REALLY bad news for the Trump team and a (possibly) major step toward a fuller understanding of Russia's interference in the election coming to light. On the other hand, this could also be the effort of someone about whom we have a lot of public information - the undisclosed foreign representation and conversations with Russian officials being foremost among them - that would already establish probable cause of criminal activity. In other words, this might also be Flynn trying to protect himself from misdeeds that have little/nothing to do with his actions on behalf of our President. 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Dark Star Shines In Nassau

In the Grateful Dead’s 30 year history, there are a handful of shows known simply by the date they were played. Five-Eight-Seventy-Seven, Ten-Nine-Eighty-Nine, and Two-Fourteen-Sixty-Eight are among a select few performances that any Deadhead recognizes immediately. Today marks the anniversary of another of those shows: Three-Twenty-Nine-Ninety. Over a second set of absolute gems, the band, joined by the famed jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, would put together a seamless 90 minutes of music that wore out tape decks, CD players, and iPods long before the band’s archivists got around to officially releasing the entire show nearly 25 years later. 

When Branford joined the band at the Nassau Coliseum they were at a creative peak that began six months before that fateful night on Long Island. The Fall 1989 tour was one for the books, starting with two unannounced shows in Hampton, Virginia on October 8th and 9th that saw breakouts of “Dark Star” (first in more than 5 years), “Help>Slip>Franklins” (ditto), and the first east coast performances of “We Bid You Goodnight” and “Attics of My Life” since 1970. The tour picked up speed as the band went up and down I-95, playing stand out shows on Weir’s birthday in East Rutherford on the 16th, in Philly on the 20th, and ending with a mind-bender of weirdness (even for the Grateful Dead) in Miami on the 26th. 

The energy on stage was also palpable in the parking lots. I attended a lot of shows during the fall of 1989 and the spring of 1990 and there was a feeling that anything was possible. In the pre-internet, pre-social media world, you relied on the four-page “Dupree’s Diamond News” and parking lot gossip to divine possible set lists and speculate about the next big break out performance. The music was self-assured but also exploratory, with Garcia dipping into a new bag of tricks courtesy of MIDI technology that could transform his guitar into a variety of other instruments or he could simply link up with Mydland’s muscular blues riffs on organ and throaty backups. Lesh was the absolute backbone of the band, while Weir’s mastery of the rhythm guitar, the notes not played as he famously put it, made him the perfect foil for Garcia’s brilliance. 

When the Dead pulled into Landover, Maryland in unseasonably warm weather on March 14th, 1990, the stage was set for more magic. The three-night run at the Capital Center would see more break-outs, “Loose Lucy,” “Easy to Love You” and “Black-Throated Wind” all rejoined the band’s repertoire for the first time since the mid/late-1970s and Lesh’s 50th birthday was punctuated by a killer “Terrapin Station” that is acclaimed as one of the band’s finest. Subsequent stops in Hartford and Albany provided more evidence that the band was firing on all cylinders, with the former providing stand out versions of “Shakedown Street” and “Morning Dew” and the latter being of such good quality, large portions would be released commercially under the sobriquet “Dozin’ at the Knick.” 

So it was that on the first night in Nassau Coliseum, the band had another treat in store. A premiere performance of “The Weight,” a mournful ballad that saw the Dead hand off verses to each other in a letter perfect way that showed they had taken the time to practice this performance, as opposed to their more common tactic of half-assing cover tunes like “Blackbird,” “Stir It Up,” and “So What.” 

The following night started off unexceptionally, if professionally with a solid first set of standards like “Jack Straw” and newer material like “We Can Run.” But when Marsalis took the stage for “Bird Song,” March 29th began its ascent into the history books. This Bird Song does indeed soar, with Marsalis’s addition turning it into an ephemeral, almost dream-like sequence of music that puts your head in the clouds and a smile on your face. The chemistry was there, the playing lush, rich, and textured, fitting neatly within the many other moments of beauty the band had produced over the prior two weeks. 

Instead of sticking around for the set-ending “Promised Land,” Marsalis alit from the stage, and one could have assumed his star turn was over. However, when he walked out on stage for the second set, Branford and the Dead created a masterpiece that would come to be seen as one of the best hours-and-a-half (give or take) of music they ever performed. 

The set opens with “Eyes of the World,” performed in a jazzy tempo that mixed perfectly with Marsalis’s soaring alto saxophone. This version takes flight from the get go, as the crowd roars with approval at the first notes Marsalis adds to the mix. Stretched out over more than 16 minutes, the interplay between Garcia and Marsalis is not just literal music to the ears, but the grainy video bootlegs that circulate online show the two in spirited harmony, Garcia clearly enjoying the younger man’s presence and the saxophonist sliding into Garcia’s musical conversation like an old friend. Eyes has many stand out moments, but the one I always come back to is a note Marsalis hits at 6:35 and holds for a few seconds that sends chills up my spine every time I hear it and resulted in an appreciative “you-believe-this-guy” look from Garcia to Weir. It is the “x” factor Deadheads would speak of but rarely see, in miniature. The shift to “Estimated Prophet” in tempo and feel shows Marsalis capably following the band’s lead. He intuits the reggae/funk vibe to the song, switching from alto to soprano sax and laying down a solo at the 8:15 mark that culminates in a wicked blues riff at 9:19 that is stunning coming from a musician who had never heard the song before performing it on stage. 

This sets the stage for another in the list of post-Hampton Dark Stars that shine with an authority and confidence that became a signature of these 89-90 performances. Jerry leads the band through a loose, nicely articulated intro jam that Marsalis picks up on instantly, intermingling with Mydland’s twinkling keyboards and Weir’s anachronistic rhythm guitar. It is gooey and warm like a fudge brownie laced with LSD and after the brief verse, dissolves into a long, exploratory jam that careens around tight corners like a sports car before stopping on a dime for the Drums/Space segment.  

The set’s back end picks up right where the band left off, tidying up the second verse of Dark Star before shifting into a solid Wheel > Throwing Stones and a pitch perfect Lovelight that gives everyone an opportunity to take a bow - none more so than Marsalis, who is showered with applause as he takes a lead at the three minute mark that stretches for close to 90 seconds and will get you out of your seat and shaking your bones. 

Aside from the high quality of the musicianship, the Nassau Dark Star show also fits in with the Dead’s mythology. Rumor has it that Lesh popped into a Marsalis show in New York City and extended the invitation to the saxophonist. After joining the band for Bird Song, Marsalis reports that he was ready to leave, but the band implored him to sit in for the second set. The rest, as they say is history. While it may be apocryphal, it has been said Branford knew none of the Dead’s music when he stepped on stage. Perhaps, but even if the grain of truth is there and not the whole kernel, the show instantly entered the band’s pantheon, widely acclaimed as one of their greatest performance and rightly so. 

Of course, for a band that could reach such heights, the Dead also had a stubborn self-destructive streak. The remaining nights in Nassau and the Atlanta shows that closed the tour retained the high quality of the era and the Summer 1990 tour was an absolute monster of epic proportions and performances. At a time when the band appeared to be at the height of its powers, tragedy was just around the corner. Mydland died of an overdose less than a week after the Summer 1990 tour ended and while Garcia remained clean for a little while, by 1993 his decline was noticeable and the band soldiered on, a shell of itself, for two more years before his death in 1995. Marsalis would go on to play four more gigs with the band (12/31/90, 9/10/91, 12/10/93 and 12/16/94) but none matched the creativity or improvisation of that special night on Long Island. It remains a touchstone of the Dead canon and a show I return to time and again to recall those days of my youth and the special bond I still share with all those who call themselves Deadheads.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

* Note: Time references are from the commercial release “Wake Up To Find Out” 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Twitter Thread Vol VIII - Chasing Shiny Objects

Did you hear how the President is going to let Paul Ryan hang out on a limb with the rob-from-the-poor-give-to-the-rich Affordable Care Act repeal? The DC media has become as conspiratorial as a JFK Assassination convention, but instead of looking at Occam's Razors, they look for Area 51. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Book Review - The Road To Little Dribbling

I really like Bill Bryson’s writing. I own both books he wrote on English usage and have read several other of his works, including A Walk in the Woods, At Home (my book of the year in 2011), and One Summer.  The Bill Bryson I know is avuncular if bit irascible, the paradigm of a public radio host with a bit of a salty tongue about him. So, when Bryson puts out a new book, even on a topic that might not interest me, say, traveling in Great Britain, I am definitely going to read it. Which is why writing this review of The Road to Little Dribbling is so difficult. I really did not like this book. It was by turns churlish and meandering, with a sense of “mailing it in” that surprised and disappointed me. It was as if Bryson’s editor told him it was time to crank out another book and the best they could come up with was revisiting a topic (and place) already explored. 

But Bryson is no stranger in a strange land. He has lived in England off-and-on for decades and wrote a similar book (Notes From A Small Island) that The Road is a sort-of sequel to. Indeed, one of the first chapters documents his taking the British citizenship test (he passes). Oddly, for someone so versed in English culture, Bryson all too often comes off as the quintessential ugly American (which is ironic, considering he was born in Iowa). He reserves his sharpest barbs and insults for people who work in the service industry - waiters, shopkeepers and the like - who Bryson dismisses and demeans while fantasizing about inflicting bodily injury to them for the temerity of not giving him what he wants. It is not a good look and Bryson falls on the wrong side of the line between curmudgeon and straight up asshole more often than not. 

The Road has the feel of a musical album of outtakes and lost tracks, something that record companies put out long after the Tupacs or Elvises of the world have left us. I hate to call this book a cash grab because it does have salutary aspects, but it lacks originality and was not thought through. For instance, Bryson visits many places that do not appear on the lone map provided at the beginning of the book, including Wales, and no line of demarcation is provided for the border between England and another part of Great Britain that he also visits - Scotland, so through much of the book you have no idea where he is unless you also have Google maps open on whatever device is handy. 

Further, the so-called “Bryson Line” - a sort of Broadway separating the eastern and western halves of Great Britain is not followed with any particular fidelity. For more than the first half of the book Bryson rattles around the southern coast and then knocks off the upper two-thirds in a scant 100 pages or so. It is odd for a book to feel both padded and too short, but The Road achieves this rare daily double. There is a lather, rinse, repeat quality to the reporting - Bryson enters <fill in blank town> finds nearest pub, has a drink with either a charmingly British bartender or a dismissive one, eats an Indian meal next door, and goes to bed. There are many greens and glens, craggy cliffs, and quirky one-offs, but the whole is far less than the some of the parts. The book suffers from far too little editing to whittle down the essentials while failing to give the type of visual or spatial guidance that would have been helpful. 

Bryson would have been better served traveling to a country he was unfamiliar with or perhaps it is just that he is a poor ambassador for the country he is familiar with - much of The Road includes discursive references to traffic, the poor design of the highway (sorry, motorway) system, the disagreeability of the native people, and so forth. When he is not being an obnoxious jerk or fantasizing about beating some poor soul over the head with his cane, Bryson can be an enjoyable tour guide. The best parts of The Road are those where Bryson acts as historian and storyteller at the sites he visits. A page summary on Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile and Stonehenge’s less famous sister site Avebury are Bryson at his best. 

In the final chapter, Bryson discusses what he likes about England, noting that “living in a British climate teaches patience and stoicism.” The same could be said for slogging through The Road To Little Dribbling.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Book Review - A Path To Peace

Buried near the end of George Mitchell and Alon Sachar’s book A Path To Peace, the authors say:

U.S. administrations come and go, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes on.

In addition to winning the “Captain Obvious” award, this observation neatly captures why, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War that led to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a peace treaty between the two people remains elusive. In part, this is because of the inherent challenge in negotiating a settlement where one party is being asked to give up something tangible (land/strategic military depth) for something intangible (peace) and as the authors explore, how entrenched positions built up over decades of mistrust, death, and destruction have made a peace treaty seem like a pipe dream. 

A Path is two small books in one. The first, a 101-level seminar on the modern history of the Middle East given by a man steeped in the fine points of diplomacy is executed flawlessly, while the second, a tick tock of recent attempts to bring the parties back to the negotiating table, is less successful. 

The tutorial that fills the book’s first half would be of use to the current occupant of the White House. It does not get too deep in the weeds while giving the reader a good sense of the historical grievances each people have. But when Mitchell and Sachar move toward the more recent past, the book’s pace slows. This is not their fault. President Clinton’s efforts during the tail end of his Presidency were the closest the parties ever came to an agreement, but since that high water mark, efforts to finalize a deal have proven elusive. The authors do a bit of rehabilitation of President Bush’s time in office by giving him (deserved) credit for trying to push the parties toward an agreement in the latter part of 2007 and 2008. But when that effort also fell short, war broke out in the Gaza Strip not long after and whatever hope of resolving this decades-long dispute went out the window. 

Mitchell enters the picture as the rubble is being cleared in Gaza but after putting forth two peace proposals (not to mention unilaterally withdrawing from the Gaza Strip) it is clear the Israelis determined that a hoped for agreement was a mirage. Mitchell chronicles his time as Special Envoy but he is not helping the parties get an agreement over the goal line, he is working with people who are in many ways back at square one. 

The problem with this part of the story is that it is simply not very compelling. And this is no fault of Mitchell or his co-author. They revel in the intricacies and nuance of negotiation, it is just that the time period of Mitchell’s involvement in the process was neither fruitful nor newsworthy. Mitchell ended up spinning his wheels trying to bargain for a settlement freeze in the West Bank while the Palestinians dithered over whether they would negotiate directly or indirectly with the Israelis. Small victories, like public meetings between the leaders, failed to bear more meaningful fruit and Mitchell quit the assignment within two years. 

The “path” Mitchell and Sachar outline in the book’s final 20 pages is more like a sketch, suggesting a few things the international community can do (setting up a refugee fund for Palestinians that could be tapped once an agreement was signed, extending NATO membership to Israel) along with a painstaking set of “trust building” measures. But these ideas are unrealistic so long as the parties continue on their present course. Having made serious offers in 2000-1 and 2007-8, it seems clear the Israelis have made a decision that a peace agreement is simply not in the cards and have moved on. The Palestinians are fractured between the Hamas-led Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority running parts of the West Bank while holding out for an even better deal than the ones they turned down. 

But the parties’ posture only makes any final agreement that much harder to reach. The deal the Palestinians rejected in 2001 got worse in many ways by 2008 because more settlers had made their way to the West Bank. Similarly, any deal that is negotiated now will displace even more people even as Israel slowly, inexorably expands its footprint into what is supposed to be territory that makes up a future Palestinian state. 

Israelis are coming around to various ideas that would have seemed insane when the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 - some want the government to annex the West Bank and grant Palestinians some form of second-class citizenship, others suggest unilateral withdrawal behind the “security barrier,” thereby creating a de facto Palestinian state but without any of the safety guarantees the Israelis desire. On the Palestinian side, advocates now dream of a “one-state” solution where Israel absorbs the Gaza Strip and West Bank and everyone living in it with equal rights and citizenship that would give Palestinians access to a dynamic economy and political representation. 

Of course, none of these is any more realistic than the totemic two-state solution that has animated negotiations for the past 25 years. The Israelis will no sooner forfeit political hegemony (not to mention the hard-fought economic stability they have worked for since 1948) in a one-state solution than the Palestinians would accept an apartheid-like second class citizenship for those living in the West Bank and Gaza. In the Middle East, it is rarely the carrot that works and until someone is wielding a stick that either (or both sides) fear, there is no end in sight to the conflict. 

For my own part, I have always thought the framework of the two-state solution everyone seems wedded to makes little sense. The idea of having a Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on one side and a PLO-controlled West Bank on the other would make Israel the only country I can think of with a hostile neighbor bordering it on BOTH sides. As I wrote about at further length, better to have all the Jews (and Israeli Arabs) on one side and all the Palestinians on the other. To achieve this, I propose moving all the Gazans to the West Bank and the Jewish settlers to the Gaza Strip (or back into Israel proper). This solution would give the Israelis greater strategic depth while requiring all Palestinians to live under one roof. It would also provide both countries with a single,  contiguous border. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Widow's Grief

Carryn Owens was in the House chamber last night when President Trump spoke to a joint session of Congress. Her husband, Chief Petty Officer William (Ryan) Owens, was killed during a military raid in Yemen just a few weeks ago. It was reported in the press (I did not watch the speech) that the applause CPO Owens and his widow received was the loudest of the evening. The President himself noted that Owens must hear the cheering in heaven.


While it is pedestrian gross to use the death of a member of our military for political gain, it is a special kind of gross to trot out a widow for such a public spectacle when you (the President) cared so little about the details surrounding the raid, you reportedly approved it between courses of dinner with your political advisors in tow and did not even bother to stop by the Situation Room at the White House during the operation to check on its status. It is also a special kind of gross for members of the Republican party who made the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Benghazi a cause célèbre for years to ignore the sketchy circumstances surrounding Owens’s death and the apparent lack of rigor that went into signing off on the mission.


It might be too much to ask for that the sacrifices of our military be apolitical, but for the man who approved a mission under questionable circumstances to use a dead man’s widow as a prop to make himself look good is a level of cynicism rarely reached in politics. That the media pointed to it as a high point for Trump and not another sub-basement of his venality, is another story altogether.

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Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Twitter Thread Vol VII - F*ck The White House Correspondents Dinner

Yesterday, Cheeto announced he was not going to attend this year's White House Correspondents Dinner. The dinner, affectionately known as "Nerd Prom" (h/t @anamariecox) is a staple of "official" Washington. In recent years, it has taken on the air of the Oscars, with a full red carpet, hours of "pre game" discussion on cable news, and a parade of Hollywood celebrities rubbing elbows with the Wolf Blitzers, Chuck Todds, and Rachel Maddows of the world.

What the WHCA also is as an elite, totally-removed-from-the-struggles-of-ordinary-Americans exercise in self-congratulatory behavior. A pigs-sitting-around-the-table-at-the-end-of-Animal-Farm spectacle where the lie of Washington is exposed for all to see. The fighting, the filibustering, the hours of talking head debate on TV is the political equivalent of professional wrestling - highly scripted, with the characters acting out their roles, except here it is the lives of those ordinary Americans being toyed with, not some story line where evil is triumphing until good prevails. 

As I noted in the below thread, the median income at the WHCA is surely far greater, perhaps as much as an order of magnitude greater, than that of "ordinary" Americans. And when politicians and reporters, celebrities and movie stars don their tuxedos and formal gowns to congratulate each other on what swell people they all are, it could not be a louder "screw you" to the rest of us if they didn't scream it all out in unison.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Book Review - Future Sex

Google “photos of Times Square from the 1970s” and you will be flooded with images of garish neon light and promises of available women. The peep shows and porn shops that Martin Scorsese made iconic in Taxi Driver were of a distilled prurience that avoided the hippie vibe of free love and did not have the patina of bourgeois hedonism found at Studio 54. Previous generations were scandalized by women wearing dresses that showed a bare ankle, Paris in the 19th century was a hotbed for behind-closed-doors sexual experimentation, and there are probably a few cave drawings that would be called pornography even today. It is to say that sex, in its many and varied forms, has long obsessed us even as we often try to wrap a plain brown bag around it and pretend it does not exist. 

Emily Witt is not the first writer, nor will she be the last, to delve into this duality, and the cover of her book Future Sex is its own 21st century Times Square billboard - a woman with a smart phone between her arched legs, a dull glow emanating from it, beckons the reader to open the front cover and peer inside. Witt is a game tour guide through the nether regions of sexuality. She attends sex parties, porn shoots, and Burning Man, engages in “orgasmic meditation,” and dabbles in webcam play. Through much of it, Witt maintains an authorly distance, and avoids judgment of her subjects, be they the couple who make a living having sex on the Internet or another twosome who have a revolving door of lovers in an open relationship. 

So long as monogamous relationships are the norm, anything written about anything other than that will stand in contrast and therefore be titillating, an object of curiosity, and “other.” So it is here. Witt has some winning lines like “The panda gang bang took place deep in the basement of the Kink armory …” but as with much in today’s society, there is little new under the sun, it is simply easier for a light to be shined on it. Polyamory, eastern philosophies as a gateway to sexual freedom, and pornography are not new and while the Internet has afforded people new chances to remunerate their sexuality or explore it in novel ways, the underlying experience, be it of BDSM, cosplay, group sex, or any of the other rainbow variety of sex that Witt explores and discusses, was not invented yesterday. 

What has changed (and mostly for the better) is society’s attitude toward that otherness. What was once shielded behind a curtain or considered sin has largely been mainstreamed. Witt reaches for broader themes because of this newfound reality. The definition of sex work is much broader than it once was so it is easier to connect, say, economic dislocation and the downturn in the job market to people webcamming their sex acts as a way to make money. Similarly, young, affluent techies in Silicon Valley are searching for a different plane of existence through the use of MDMA while plotting their sexual trysts on Google calendars for their polyamorous partners to study and consider. This may seem novel, but other than the technological wizardry and substitution of MDMA for LSD, such behavior would not have been out of place in the Haight-Ashbury of the late 1960s. 

In part, this book is also pitched as Witt’s own exploration of what relationships and sex mean to her, a woman in her early 30s, but she can be an unreliable narrator. The book begins with her taking a months-long hiatus from the single life in Brooklyn by moving to San Francisco, but at some point along the way, she demurs at having sex at an orgy because she has a boyfriend back home, while her trip to Burning Man is occasion to have sex with a casual friend and a man she meets there called Lunar Fox. Because the book’s time line is never explicitly given, the temporal shifts left me confused as to whether Witt was a woman exploring the possibilities of alternative dating options or an anthropologist jotting down field notes. Maybe it was a little of both, but as a meditation on “future sex” I found the book less convincing. Today’s world may be glossier and filled with young people whose pockets are lined with wealth earned in the tech book, but at base, the desires are no different than the seamy Times Square of 40 years ago.

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