Let ‘Em Eat Birdies (and Eagles Too)

My weekend posts should really have been titled: Being Some Notes on the State of the Union–Especially Its Urban Components and Their Budgetary Shenanigans–In the Twenty-First Century. Like my post on Camden yesterday, this post needs little commentary. So, here we go.

Shelley said poets and philosophers were the unacknowledged legislators of his generation. In ours it would have to be late-night satire peddlers and stand-up comics. For instance, George Carlin pointed out–at a live performance that I witnessed at the Red Bank Theater in New Jersey–that given its developmental trajectory, the United States was destined to become a land of golf courses and slums. This line is not to be confused with Carlin’s famous lines about the utilization of golf courses to provide affordable housing for the homeless, which truth be told, still sounds like a pretty good idea to me, even though, as my friend Michelle Ronda informs me:

In 2011, Picture the Homeless (a NYC non-profit) completed a citywide count of empty lots and buildings in low-income communities in New York City. They found enough vacant properties to house the amount of people living on the streets, in homeless shelters and in overcrowded households in our City five times over.

Flash forward to the following headline: In the Bronx, Throwing $97 Million Down 18 Holes (New York Times, September 30, 2012, by Gina Bellefante), which serves to introduce us to an article that begins:

Were we to commit ourselves to making a master list of what New York City needs more of, it is fair to say that many of us would wear a third or fourth pencil down to the nub before settling on an 18-hole golf course and the increased presence of Donald J. Trump. And yet, with the renovation of a major portion of Ferry Point Park in the southeastern section of the Bronx, this is what New Yorkers will receive.

The city is spending $97 million to construct a public golf course in the park; it is scheduled to open in the spring of 2014 and to be operated by Trump National and International Golf Clubs. At that point, residents of a borough where more than 30 percent of people live below the poverty line will have what will surely be seen as a welcome opportunity to improve their handicaps (for green fees higher than those at most municipal courses).

The construction of the golf course, which has a long and embattled history — the budget, to cite one aspect, has swelled by $40 million since 2008 — gained renewed attention last week after The Daily News reported that MFM, a contracting company the city is using on the project, had been linked to a troubled outfit, Felix Associates. MFM’s owners have a passive financial interest in Felix Associates, one of whose principals pleaded guilty to bribery charges two years ago.

Although MFM has not been accused of any wrongdoing, the city’s Department of Investigation had recommended that the Department of Parks and Recreation consider hiring an auditor to oversee dealings with the company. The parks department chose not to do so. [links in original]

‘Nuff said? I think so.

Note: Bellafante’s article is a little too heavy on the snark; she could have merely reported the facts of the story; these speak for themselves.

Camden Can’t Afford Its Police and Its Union Any More

Today’s blog post has little ‘analysis’; all I need do is point. Perfect storms should be ‘admired’ from a distance. When I’m done, let the chants of ‘USA! USA! USA!’ ring out, loud and proud.

So, let us get started. Here is a little piece of news: Camden, NJ has decided to disband its police department:

The reason, officials say, is that generous union contracts have made it financially impossible to keep enough officers on the street. So in November, Camden, which has already had substantial police layoffs, will begin terminating the remaining 273 officers and give control to a new county force. The move, officials say, will free up millions to hire a larger, nonunionized force of 400 officers to safeguard the city, which is also the nation’s poorest.

These one hundred and twenty-seven additional, cheaper officers will now presumably make a significant difference in fighting crime in a city reckoned the most dangerous in America. (Did I mention it was also the poorest?) Before their arrival, things had reached a point where

[T]he police in Camden — population 77,000 — are already so overloaded they no longer respond to property crimes or car accidents that do not involve injuries.

There are few tears being shed for the police department in Camden because:

[M]any residents have come to resent a police force they see as incompetent, corrupt and doing little to make their streets safe….When police officers arrested a person suspected of dealing drugs in a house on a narrow street in North Camden last year, residents set upon their cars and freed the prisoner.

Camden’s move is part of a trend:

The new effort follows a push by New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, a Republican, and Democratic leaders in the Legislature to encourage cities and towns to regionalize government services. They maintain that in a new era of government austerity, it is no longer possible for each community to offer a full buffet of government services, especially with a new law prohibiting communities from raising property taxes more than 2 percent a year.

The police union’s contract terms are seen as the problem:

[O]fficers earn an additional 4 percent for working a day shift, and an additional 10 percent for the shift starting at 9:30 p.m. They earn an additional 11 percent for working on a special tactical force or an anticrime patrol. Salaries range from about $47,000 to $81,000 now, not including the shift differentials or additional longevity payments of 3 percent to 11 percent for any officer who has worked five years or more. Officials say they anticipate salaries for the new force will range from $47,000 to $87,000. In 2009, as the economy was putting a freeze on municipal budgets even in well-off communities, the police here secured a pay increase of 3.75 percent. And liberal sick time and family-leave policies have created an unusually high absentee rate: every day, nearly 30 percent of the force does not show up.

Urban blight; shrinking budgets; rampant crime; terrible police-community relations; Camden has it all. Yes, indeed, drastic action seems necessary and unions and their contracts seem like the right place to start. They always are.

As we move on, we should note that things weren’t always so bad economically:

Camden, in the shadow of Philadelphia’s glimmering towers, once had a thriving industrial base — a shipyard, Campbell Soup and RCA plants along the waterfront. About 60,000 jobs were lost when those companies moved or shifted them elsewhere.

Or even crime-wise:

Camden reorganized its Police Department in 2008 and had a lower homicide rate for two years. Then the recession forced layoffs, reducing the force by about 100 officers. [Links in original; one hundred, I believe, is twenty seven less than the one hundred and twenty seven to be added after this disbandment.]

 But I can’t imagine that any of that history has anything to do with the current crisis.

Movies on Philosophers: Rare, Hard to Make, Desirable

Having viewed the rather disappointing Chopin: Desire for Love over the weekend, I’m struck again by how difficult it seems to be to make movies about artists, writers, or perhaps creators of all kinds. My viewing also served to remind me that movies about philosophers’ lives are exceedingly rare, and the few that have been made–or rather, that I am aware of–haven’t exactly sent cinemaphiles or students of philosophy running to the nearest box-office e.g., Derek Jarman‘s Wittgenstein was a disappointment, and the less said about the atrocious and unwatchable When Nietzsche Wept, the better.

What gives?  Have philosophers lived particularly dull lives–devoid of dramatic involvement in world affairs, the cultural history of their times, or matters of the heart? Does the philosopher’s life, supposedly all inwardly directed contemplation,  need plenty of faux external action to make it palatable for the screen? I don’t think so. Both the philosophers named above serve as immediate counterexamples to any such facile generalization. And certainly, movies on Enlightenment philosophers would make for some rather spectacular story-telling and serve as grand historical dramas as well. I suspect the problem lies elsewhere.

Most prominently, it seems to me the subject matter, while not intractably resistant to cinematic adaptation, does pose special challenges to directors, screenwriters and actors: the centerpieces of a philosopher’s life are philosophical doctrines after all, and if the movie is to do justice to that life, then the doctrines have to be woven skillfully into both the form and the content of the movie. By this I mean it is not enough that the philosopher merely mouth off a selection of the greatest lines from his oeuvre. This would be an utter disaster. The doctrines have to, instead, be shown in their historical context; the problems they tackle have to be shown to be relevant to ordinary mortals; their poetic content needs to be made visible; and their philosophical content made comprehensible by showing its resonance with larger human themes. This would be easier obviously in the case of those considered political or moral philosophers and much harder with those writing on metaphysical or epistemological themes. (I wonder how Leibnizian  or Hegelian metaphysics would be brought to the big screen; but Descartes‘ epistemological doctrines in the Meditations seem amenable to an adaptation featuring a dialog with fictional interlocutors.)

The screenwriter and director have to find a way too, to incorporate a didactic or expository flavor that doesn’t overpower the story-telling they have in mind. Jarman’s Wittgenstein was never intended as a guide to Wittgenstein’s philosophizing but the minor flirtations it engaged in in that dimension, were, I think, utter failures. In this regard, I’m curious whether Louis Menand‘s The Metaphysical Club could serve as the basis for a cinematic introduction to the American pragmatists.

That last point leads me to cast a quick vote for a movie I’d love to see: the life and times of the brilliant, tortured and singularly unfortunate Charles Sanders Peirce. Any movie-maker willing to take that task on will have a sympathetic, thoughtful biography–that written by Joseph Brent–to draw on. I doubt any directors read this blog, but if you’re one, think about it. It’s a great story, one worth bringing to the screen.

Responding to Caitlin Kelly on Journalistic Standards, Writerly Solidarity, and Bloggers’ Responsibilities

Caitlin Kelly from the New York Times writes in my comments space in response to my blog post from a few days ago and I respond. I want to expand on that response because I think her comment and mine bring to light some interesting issues. (The comments space also features some very good remarks by Satadru Sen, David Coady and Anna Gotlib; please do check it out.)

First off, it is entirely unclear to me why Kelly thinks a blogger needs to contact a journalist for clarification, when the blogger’s point is to note a piece has gone to press that doesn’t show the care required of a journalist. The point is to criticize the article, to call it out, to show to readers a journalist does not seem to have done the legwork required in order to produce a good piece of journalism. Critics of journalists cannot be expected to check in with them for vetting as it were; this seems like an unnecessary constraint. Since when has this requirement become de rigeur?

My friend Julie Rivchin Ulmet made the following perspicuous comment on my Facebook page:

That’s incredible on so many levels. First, you didn’t refer to any conduct by the author of the piece, you referred, appropriately, to the “New York Times” and the “article”. Its a bit ridiculous for her to take it personally, let alone to do so publically. And because you are referring to a published article and not behind the scenes actions, it is preposterous that you should ask for comment. It’s basically textual analysis. The text speaks for itself.

‘The text speaks for itself’ indeed.

Second, Kelly seems to ignore the tremendous power differential that exists between journalists like her who find a platform in media outlets like the New York Times and bloggers like myself. My blog posts have very limited visibility; if Kelly is worried her professional reputation will be hurt then she can perhaps rest easy. But her pieces have thousands of readers and are backed up by the authority of the New York Times; they have the power to influence opinion significantly. It is Kelly’s responsibility to do the checking, and to make sure her piece is not vulnerable to the kind of criticisms mounted in the Techdirt piece I was quoting. Like some dude once said, with great power comes great responsibility.

Third, Kelly wants to rely on a notion of writerly solidarity: that I should not attack another writer. But this is to invoke a solidarity or a fraternity that does not exist. More to the point, it is a dangerous invocation. Writers write, critics critique, journalists expose; once they put their ideas out there they should expect to be critiqued. I have now published three books, and am working on my fourth. None of my reviewers have bothered to contact me for clarifications; rather, they write first and then expect me to write defenses. I have a pen (or keyboard); I can defend myself very well with those. That’s what I do; I meet critique with more critique. I have written over 150 blog posts over at ESPN-Cricinfo so perhaps you could call me a sports journalist; I do not expect those who respond to me to ask me for clarification first. I have written almost 300 posts here. I don’t expect people who criticize me here to contact me first for clarification either. (In my response to Kelly I seem to have conceded too much in this regard). If someone critiques me, I will respond here (as I am doing at this very moment to Kelly’s critical comments).

Lastly, as I have noted, I look forward to Kelly’s response to the original criticisms mounted in the TechDirt piece. I have linked to her blog and will be monitoring it to see if that happens. Perhaps Kelly can post the original version of her piece so that we can see if editing by NYT editors above her resulted in the omissions we are all worried about.

Marijuana Legalization: States Lead, the Center Follows, and Obama Stops Giggling?

Jacob Sullum at Reason.com looks at the marijuana legalization initiatives under way in Colorado, Washington and Oregon, and notes that there might be parallels with the repeal of alcohol prohibition, where the lead was taken by state initiatives:

By the time the 21st Amendment ended national alcohol prohibition in December 1933, more than a dozen states had already opted out. Maryland never passed its own version of the Volstead Act, while New York repealed its alcohol prohibition law in 1923. Eleven other states eliminated their statutes by referendum in November 1932.

We could see the beginning of a similar rebellion against marijuana prohibition this year as voters in three states—Washington, Colorado, and Oregon—decide whether to legalize the drug’s production and sale for recreational use. If any of these ballot initiatives pass, it might be the most consequential election result this fall, forcing both major parties to confront an unjust, irrational policy that Americans increasingly oppose. [link in original]

The figures in Sullum’s article seem to indicate that while Oregon’s voters currently seem disinclined to approve their state’s legalization initiative, those in Colorado and Washington appear far more in favor of finally bringing an end to the catastrophic insanity of the continuing illegality of marijuana.

But if Oregon does not make marijuana legal this year, I suspect its position as a neighboring state to Washington will complicate its position in the years to come.  Perhaps trans-border ‘marijuana tourism’ will pick up, infuriating Oregon’s law-enforcement officers and creating more headaches for them. This could lead to pressure on Washington, from Oregon, to increase the regulation on sales of marijuana (much as coffee-shops in the Netherlands sometimes do, to make sure that Belgian and German kids aren’t jumping on a train heading across the border to pick up a stash.) Conversely, the loss of such revenue to a neighboring state could perhaps aid the drive to legalization in Oregon. (‘Why lose all that cash to Washington?’)

The most significant effect of such state legalization initiatives will be the empirical data they will provide for national designers of drug policy: What are its effects on patterns of drug usage, on the so-called ‘gateway effect’, on crime statistics? Perhaps the presence of such data will indicate to other states that their worst fears about legalization are not being realized in states bold enough to just say ‘no’ to the war on drugs. And perhaps it will induce some seriousness into our president whose ‘leadership’ in drug policy thus far has consisted of a passable imitation of an ostrich. (One that snickers; see below.)

Sullum goes on to note:

As The Seattle Times observed in a recent editorial endorsing Initiative 502, “The question for voters is not whether marijuana is good. It is whether prohibition is good.” The voices rejecting prohibition in Washington and Colorado include city council members, state legislators, former U.S. attorneys, clergymen, retired cops, and two national police organizations—a hard group to dismiss as a bunch of silly potheads, which is President Obama’s usual approach to the issue. [links in original]

Do chase down the link to the video of Obama, and his faithfully acolytic audience, giggling–like a bunch of silly potheads–at the mere raising of the question. I had never imagined that an expensive, racist, deadly policy could be so funny.

A Bloody Shin, Homeostasis and Automaticity

On Saturday morning, while working out in my gym and attempting to complete a series of twenty jumps on to a 24-inch box, I momentarily took my eyes off the target, stumbled, and hit my shin on the jagged edge of the box. I almost fell to the left, recovered, and completed my workout. A few minutes later, after catching my breath and downing a bottle of water, I looked down to see that a 2-inch long, bleeding gash had magically appeared; the force of the blow had pulled a small skin fold away from the open wound; it lay on the right, forming a hairy, matted, bloody, sweaty mess on my leg.  It smarted a bit, and given the potential for the intermingling of various bacterial life-forms, dirt, and the body fluids of those who had previously used the box,  it was probably best to administer a little first-aid, so after washing the wound, I walked over to our handy medical kit, swabbed the area with alcohol, applied an antiseptic cream, laid on a cotton gauze patch, taped it over, and went home.

Two days on, as I gleefully look forward to the prospect of an interesting scar (always good for a story or two), and wait for a scab to form so that the healing process can accelerate, and I can dispense with the nuisance of bandaging, I’m struck again by how injuries and the homeostatic process of healing that follows their disruption of the steady-state equilibrium of the inner and outer layers of skin, provide salutary reminders about the exquisite biochemistry of the body, about consciousness, physical sensations, and attention, and the curious mixture of automaticity and autonomy that seemingly constitutes our bodies and our selves.

I barely felt the blow that caused that wound; at that moment, a host of other sensations–my legs burned from the effort required to explosively jump up on the box–crowded out that momentary trauma caused by the impact on the splintered, sharp edge, and forced my conscious attention elsewhere. The bleeding came to a halt soon enough as platelets and fibrin-containing clots set to work to repair damaged blood vessels; and voila, the always-magical process of wound healing began.

And as that series of complex maneuvers kick off, the admixture that we are is brought front and center: I do not issue conscious directives for this healing to begin, it has ‘a mind of its own.’ I can intervene (my first aid attempts for instance), disrupt and aggravate (by exposing the wound to more trauma) or facilitate (by changing bandage dressings), but the commencement of this exercise was not under my control. Equilibria disturbed; normal service is sought to be resumed. Stand back and marvel; one is given a glimpse of the humming factory that runs 24/7 just beneath, and even on top of, our skins.

Sometimes you can pay attention to the way you sweat on a hot day; and sometimes you need a smack upside the head–or a scrape on the shin, to remind you of the finely pitched control maintained by this fantastically intricate bag of skin, bones, and blood, striving constantly to maintain its integrity against all that presses in on it from the ‘outside.’

Pankaj Mishra on the Supposedly ‘Inevitable’ American ‘Retreat’ from the Middle East

Pankaj Mishra suggests America’s ‘retreat’ from the Middle East is ‘inevitable’ as its ‘financial clout’ diminishes and with it, its ability to control the ‘bewilderingly diverse and ferocious energies unleashed by the Arab Spring.’  Now, the language of inevitability in a domain as complex as geopolitics generally signposts intellectual arrogance: Can the interactions of people, power, money, religion, really give rise to anything subject to such a facile description? One would think not, but admitting this would presumably lead to a less provocative headline.  Mishra is, of course, on to something, given the diminishing ability of the US to influence world affairs and recent events in the Middle East but he doesn’t help his case by arguing his point with his usual penchant for looseness and the throw-away line. (Such as, for instance, dismissing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s interesting role in Indian independence struggles with a casual note that runs him together along with Woodrow Wilson’s rejection of Ho Chin Minh’s overtures for IndoChinese independence, all on the basis of one–admittedly crude–remark about the Palestinians. Roosevelt’s extended correspondence with Churchill on this matter is seemingly of no interest to Mishra, an astonishing omission for someone appointed the Modern Voice of India. )

The central elision in Mishra’s analysis occurs early where he suggests that recent events in the Middle East–‘the murder of four Americans in Libya and mob assaults on the United States’ embassies’–should not be analogized with the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran but rather with America’s helicopter-borne departure from Saigon as ‘North Vietnamese tanks rolled into the city.’ But soon after offering this putative analogy, Mishra offers a quick disclaimer, which is not revisited again for the length of his Op-Ed:

Of course, Southeast Asia had no natural resources to tempt the United States and no ally like Israel to defend.

The reason the analogy with South East Asia might not be made then, is because, bizarrely enough, Southeast Asia is not like the Middle East for the two reasons adduced above. If A is to be analogized to B, then it must be because A is relevantly similar to B. But the presence of gigantic energy resources–already the cause of several expensive military involvements in the Middle East–and of an ally that has a significant lobbyist-fueled presence in American domestic politics, render  the modern Middle East rather, relevantly dissimilar to the Southeast Asia of the 1960s and 1970s.

Mishra attempts to paper over this weakness in his analogy by noting that Southeast Asia like the Middle East,

[A]ppeared to be at the front line of the worldwide battle against Communism, and American policy makers had unsuccessfully tried both proxy despots and military firepower to make the locals advance their strategic interests.

But this seems common to Latin America, Middle East and Southeast Asia. Has the US faced a ‘strategic retrenchment’ in Latin America in the face of the many struggles for self-determination in that continent? Not really, because Latin America is sufficiently dissimilar from Southeast Asia–in geographical proximity for instance–to bring about a different orientation on the part of US policy makers.

Mishra overlooks other factors that weaken his analogy. The hasty departure from the rooftops of the American Embassy came at the end of a long, expensive, and bloody war that graphically demonstrated the limits of US military might, a war front and center in the American imagination because of its extensive reach, across the oceans and back into daily life–thanks to the draft–in the ‘homeland.’ The current involvement in Afghanistan does not compare in terms of its visible presence in American political conversation: it is yet another forgotten war. The ability of this war to force American ‘strategic retrenchment’ is crucially limited.

Yes, America faces resurgent nationalist movements and uprisings against dominant, US-supported regimes in the Middle East; yes, its economic power is waning. And yes, the US remains oblivious to, and misreads, Middle Eastern sensibilities. But there is oil in them thar sands, and those who sit on top of it can still be talked into backroom deals that ignore local sensitivities, and there remains an ally of the US that is capable, unlike any other, of skewing US foreign policy in directions of its choosing.