Saturday, July 02, 2011

Paying For A Boom (UPDATE)

I realize a holiday weekend when most people will be busy doing all sorts of other things than read blogs is an odd time to write a complicated, link-heavy post. All the same, it is what is on my mind, which is the usual impetus for doing this. Plus, I get it out of the way early and can enjoy the rest of what will be a hot, muggy day.

Yesterday I read two reports, very different in framing and tone, on a single act of New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo. Let's start with Our Paper Of Record:
The Cuomo administration is seeking to lift what has effectively been a moratorium in New York State on hydraulic fracturing, a controversial technique used to extract natural gas from shale, state environmental regulators said on Thursday.
That's the act subject to two, very different articles. The Times piece continues:
The process would be allowed on private lands, opening New York to one of the fastest-growing — critics would say reckless — areas of the energy industry. It would be banned inside New York City’s sprawling upstate watershed, as well as inside a watershed used by Syracuse, and in underground water sources used by other cities and towns. It would also be banned on state lands, like parks and wildlife preserves.


Hydrofracking has prompted intense protests from some environmental activists, who say it threatens the cleanliness of groundwater. The process involves injecting large volumes of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, deep into the ground to break up rock formations and release natural gas. It is legal in a number of other states, including Pennsylvania.

A primary concern among environmental groups has been the leftover wastewater that can be contaminated with toxic materials buried underground, including naturally occurring radioactive elements, or carcinogens like benzene. Proponents, on the other hand, focus on the potential benefits. Drilling for natural gas has been promoted because it burns more cleanly than coal and can reduce dependence on imported energy sources, and it can also bring jobs to economically battered regions of the state.


The governor telegraphed his position about hydrofracking in a campaign document on energy policy he released last year. It referred to the potential development of the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that stretches from southern New York State to Ohio and West Virginia.

“The economic potential from the Marcellus Shale could provide a badly needed boost to the economy of the Southern Tier and even many environmentalists agree we want to produce more domestic natural gas that reduces the need for environmentally damaging fuel sources such as coal,” his campaign statement said, while adding, “Existing watersheds are sacrosanct, and Andrew Cuomo would not support any drilling that would threaten the state’s major sources of drinking water.”(italics added)
My hometown newspaper covered the same facts - Cuomo's desire to lift the ban of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) - with a headline that seemed to signal a preference for a far more lenient oversight of natural gas exploration:
State may ban gas drilling in watersheds, state land
The story continues in the same vein:
New York environmental officials have proposed a ban on drilling for natural gas with hydraulic fracturing in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds and on all state-owned lands while permitting it on private land only under “rigorous and effective controls” codified into state law.
Rather than discuss opening the possibility for fracking on private lands, the story begins by discussing the limits Cuomo and the state DEC plan to place on the practice.

The "Southern Tier" candidate Cuomo's position paper referred to is the long stretch of rural counties and communities from the NY-PA border just east of Erie, PA to Binghamton, NY and Broome County in the east, where the state border turns southeast along the Delaware River and the descent to New York City. Never hugely economically prosperous, the Southern Tier does have the advantages of gorgeous rolling hills, lakes like Chatauqua, small college towns like Alfred and Olean, and the small cities of Elmira and Corning. The eastern half of the region is the gateway to the Finger Lakes, with its tourist attractions and wineries.

In the middle of this stretch is my hometown, Waverly, NY. It has the unusual distinction for being a pivot point both for the NY-PA border - its existence has always been a bone of contention for the cluster of towns squeezed between the confluence of the Chemung and Susquehanna Rivers - and for the boom that has resulted in the exploitation of the Marcellus Shale for its natural gas reserves. Lifting the ban in New York will open the floodgates in Tioga County and areas to its east and north to the gas companies just as its immediate southern neighbor, Bradford County, PA, has become home to an economic boom the area hasn't known since the days of the railroads.

Back in April, I noted that all the promises of how safe and clean natural gas is, how strict and safe fracking is, ran up against the reality of a huge spill of toxic chemicals outside Canton, PA. At the heart of my own fear regarding Cuomo's proposed ending of a fracking moratorium lies exactly this - the procedure known as fracking involves pumping water filled with a variety of things, including toxic chemicals, deep under ground to break up the shale and release the natural gas trapped in a variety of tiny pockets inside the formations. The problem is, the details regarding the contents of "other stuff" used is considered proprietary information. We don't know exactly what is being pumped underground, until it finds its way in to ground water, and we discover such things as benzene, xylene, and toluene poisoning ground water.

The gas companies understand how the game is played, to be sure. In Bradford County, among other rural counties in northeastern PA, Chief Oil and Gas paid for improvements and repairs on 45 miles of rural roads, buckling under the pressure of the constant flow of heavy equipment. On their website, Chief insists "[s]ocial responsibility is a core value at Chief Oil & Gas", without ever mentioning pouring tons of known carcinogens, neuro-toxins, and other poisons in to the ground. This kind of thing, which should be understood as bribery rather than some corporate do-gooderism, is meant to head off any attempt at user fees and road taxes specifically targeted at the gas companies. Yesterday, an attempt by Democrats in the Pennsylvania State Senate to include impact fees died in Harrisburg. While this may have died, the gas companies know that regulation and taxation will continue to dog them; paying up-front for road repair is good PR, keeps their trucks from needing maintenance, and offers more land in relatively inaccessible areas to gas exploration.

This kind of public pay-off isn't the only thing the gas companies promise. The influx of money and interest from the gas companies, the promised payouts to land owners holding leases, many of which include not just land use and rental fees but also royalties, in an area of the country where "Depression" has defined much of its history seems an obvious way to keep voices of dissent from raising themselves too high.

Then there are jobs. Jobs at the rigs. Jobs in maintenance. Jobs in the front offices of local branches of out-of-state gas companies (many from Texas and Oklahoma and Colorado). And not just those jobs. All the new industry will need all sorts of support services, physical and economic infrastructure from hotels and gyms to restaurants and stores that will cater to new-found money and needs and desires.

Except most of the current jobs directly linked to the gas drilling are going to imported workers, experienced roughnecks from the gas and oil regions of Oklahoma and the Rockies, skilled trades people from home offices, geologists, hydrologists from home offices. . . Even diesel mechanics and truck repair personnel are imported. Why? It takes too long, apparently, to give the necessary training in the skills needed to get the wells up and producing to wait for locals. Much better, much cheaper, much more necessary to use people who know what they're doing.

Yesterday, I had a brief chat with Professor Jordan Kleiman on a mutual Facebook friend's status, and he mentioned an article (.pdf) by Cornell geologist Robert Howarth. Howarth was investigating the claims made by the natural gas industry that it is a "clean" energy, with a far smaller greenhouse gas footprint than coal when used for energy. In fact, even taking methane leakage in coal mining and production in to account, and considering hydraulic fracturing as the main means of natural gas extraction, there is little difference in the alleged "cleanliness" between coal mining (in particular, mountaintop-removal mining) and fracking for natural gas.

There is a problem with Howarth's study, however. The data available to researchers is scant at best. He admits up front that there may well be more comprehensive data available to the industry. If so, they aren't sharing. The gas industry jumped on this admitted limitation - any scientific study with more data is better, more precise, and more reliable - in a statement repudiating Howarth's study.

My own sense is that Howarth may well be correct, but more and better data, more and better and more thorough investigation of the overall impact of natural gas - from extraction through consumption - is needed to get a clearer picture. One thing Howarth's study does, however, is focus attention on the entire process of extracting natural resources and their overall impact on the environment, rather than the focus on the radical differences between burning coal and natural gas.

I have been paying attention to these matters in a somewhat desultory way, from a distance, ever since I learned of the gas boom and what it was doing, and the "more" it was promising to do for the area in which I grew up, where I still have families, and where I have very deep roots. Now that Gov. Cuomo is signalling lifting the ban on fracking in the name of economic benefit, it is important to ask serious questions of the gas industry, as well as local, county, and state officials who see dollar signs in the midst of economic malaise in the rest of the country. Not the least of these questions is what, exactly, is in the water pumped deep underground, beyond what we know from leakages at other sites around the country? Have there been hydrological surveys of underground water movements to judge where chemicals, once introduced, may move and how long such movements may take? Do we know what breaking up the deep substructure underlying such a large region of the country - the Marcellus Shale runs from my old neck of the woods down through Middle Appalachia - will do to the physical stability of the region?

What happens when the gas runs out and the companies and all their employees pack it up for the next hot spot? Will Tioga County and Tompkins County in New York, Bradford and Susquehanna Counties in Pennsylvania resemble parts of Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado that boomed during silver, copper, and iron mining, then died once the minerals disappeared, with tons of toxic waste poisoning the soil and water?

These are the questions. These are my fears. I have nothing against economic development, in particular for a place I love so much. The price, however, seems so steep, and the negative impacts - to the water and soil, to the local and county and state politics, to the global environment - have yet to be studied and understood in any thoroughgoing manner.

UPDATE: Is it possible for hydrofracking to undermine the stability of the surface? Well, it at seems possible, given this story out of Arkansas via Syracuse:
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Two natural gas companies agreed Friday to temporarily cease operations of injection wells in an area of central Arkansas that has seen more than 800 earthquakes during the past six months.

Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy and Clarita Operating of Little Rock said they would comply with the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission’s emergency request to stop all injection activities in Greenbrier- and Guy-area wells used to dispose of wastewater from production. The panel’s next regular meeting is March 29.

Geologists are studying a swarm of recent area quakes, most tiny, in an attempt to determine whether there is a connection between the seismic activity and gas-drilling companies’ work in the Fayetteville Shale formation. A 4.7-magnitude earthquake, the most powerful reported in the state in 35 years, struck near Greenbrier on Sunday night.

Friday, July 01, 2011

A Farewell Salute

I would be remiss if I did not note that yesterday marked the end of Robert Gates' service as Secretary of Defense. He has served every President since Jimmy Carter, when he was hired to work on the National Security Staff by Zbigniew Brzezinski. Non-partisan in a good sense, Gates exemplifies rare virtues in public servants - honesty, a refusal to truckle to his paymasters, and a willingness to perform tasks and carry out policies with competence and without a great deal of public attention-seeking - that are far too rare. Compared to other Cabinet-level appointees from Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger to Alexander Haig and Donald Rumsfeld, his virtues seem so obvious they almost escape notice.

No NPR the other day, I heard a tape from a Congressional hearing at which Gates was a witness back in 2006. He was asked a direct question by Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) and he gave a direct, one word answer. When asked if he believed we were "winning" in Iraq (a concept I still find difficult to understand because it has never been defined), Gates said, "No." That right there should have endeared him to the hearts of so many critics of the Bush Administration. Not the answer itself. Rather, in an Administration constructed around misdirection and obfuscation, Gates offered a direct, transparent honesty that should have made people sit up and take notice. Bush-fatigue, however, being the widespread phenomenon it was by then, few (including me) were willing to notice this fundamental difference with the rest of Bush's national security team.

Obama's record on foreign affairs seems, to me at least, a mixture of continuity with some of the worst tendencies of the Bush Administration and a curious tendency to improvise, with the occasional word from on high in speeches such as his Nobel acceptance speech, pronouncements on Israel/Palestine, and his Egypt speeches. As counterpoint, Gates has been a quiet, thoughtful, and serious adviser, skeptical both on Obama's decision regarding the pace of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and the recent military action in Libya, as well as urging and supportive in Obama's decision to draw down (although not remove) troops from Iraq.

As Secretary of Defense, his biggest virtue has been the attention he lavishes on the troops. He has visited them frequently, spoken to them one-on-one, shaken their hands, and expressed, repeatedly using the same phrases over and over, the way decisions he has made that effect their lives weight on him because he considers them not just our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, but our fellow citizens. Being able to combine this kind of personal approach as well an intelligence and insight on matters of policy is rare enough; doing so serving different Presidents of different parties is even more rare.

His replacement across the river, Leon Panetta, is an example of the kind of Washington creature best described as courtier. Best known as Clinton's late-term Chief of Staff and currently head of the CIA, one thing Panetta does not bring to the office is the kind of resume that would lend credibility to his advice on defense matters. He is a toady, not a public servant. I shall worry over the course of his tenure about the kind of advice Obama will receive, and if he will be willing to do the unthinkable - insist that the President might well be making mistakes.

Thank you, Robert Gates, for your service to our country, to our military, and for the example you have set. I do not know if you are the best of our Secretaries of Defense, as the President said, but you have been quite good, and we as a country owe you a debt of gratitude.

Thursday, June 30, 2011


You seem to be inventing monsters so you can fight them.
Edwin Drood

So I was reading today's Daily Howler, and Somerby noted a piece in the Outlook section of June 4's Washington Post that purports to explain "How We Got Here", with reference to the current fiscal situation we face. The failure, in this instance, was the author's curious position, admitted up front, that the particular issues at which she looks - the Bush-era tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the stimulus package in 2009 - only account for one-third of the total current fiscal shortfall. What about the rest of it? As Somerby makes clear for readers who may not have noticed, 67% of the problem remains "unexplained", at least according to the categories set forth in a piece of journalism purporting to explain the situation. A bit like explaining football by talking about special teams only. You know, all that offense, defense is kind of important, too.

Funny enough, the current fiscal situation is easy enough to understand if you have been paying attention. Of course, not everyone has been, which is why the kind of journalistic malpractice Somerby highlights is so important. While the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003, the wars in Asia, and the stimulus have, indeed, contributed to the budget shortfall, the elephant in the room is the subject no one wants to talk about - persistent high unemployment, brought on, initially, by the financial sector crisis, then industrial sector crisis in the fall of 2008, and the resulting Great Recession that just doesn't seem to want to go away.

There is a great deal of information out there on all sorts of specifics concerning the collapse of the financial sector, most clearly and cogently the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Report (and its bizzaro-world minority reports), about which I wrote this past January.

No one has been better at making clear the choices we have faced over the past two-and-a-half years than Paul Krugman. While occasionally venturing forth in to the waters of splenetic venting about how stupid and/or venal our elected officials can be, by and large his columns in the New York Times have been both simple and consistent: We know, if we wish to accept it, what needs to be done - fiscal stimulus both larger and more diverse than was initially used in 2009, over a longer period of time.

Other facts, more tangential, yet important nevertheless, include the behavior of the large banks who would, without the federal government stepping in through the TARP legislation passed in the autumn of 2008 no longer exist. Rather than say, "Thank you," the way my parents taught me, they cry and whine and moan about how mean the Obama Administration has been, how terrible the Democratic Congress was in daring to pass legislation regulating parts of their behavior. After all, they proved they are trustworthy, right?

Oh, wait. . .

They continue to restrict borrowing in what might be considered a rational response to recent events. Except, of course, as the FCIC report details, their behavior over the period of the housing bubble was anything but either normal, or even in many cases legal. Using their own irrational behavior as an excuse, they continue to use TARP and other funds to pursue high-risk, high-yield investment opportunities, rather than return to a kind fiduciary responsibility and financial probity one hears ad nauseum is the thing banks really do.

There is no mystery why we are in the situation we currently enjoy. It isn't something I made up, nor is it the vague ramblings of some weird liberal types. We can dicker over details - more or less stimulus, more or less oversight of the financial industry - yet recent history should be clear enough: If we had the will to make our way out, we would. Too many stakeholders have too much to lose if the changes needed to fix the problems were enacted. Thus, we have the dog-and-pony show of legislative gridlock and sideshow freaks like Eric Cantor pretending to act on principle when, really, we know he just dances to the tune of them what called it in the first place.

UPDATE: It is serendipity, or synchronicity, or perhaps just coincidence that I came across this article today.
In a well-covered exchange, Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase’s chief executive, challenged Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, about the costs and benefits of the Dodd-Frank rules. More attention has been paid to the banker’s audacity, but the response of the world’s most powerful banking regulator was more troubling. Mr. Bernanke scraped and bowed in apology without mentioning the staggering costs of the crisis the banks led us into.

So this is a good occasion to step way back to understand just how good the banks have it today.

The federal government, in ways explicit and implicit, profoundly subsidizes and shelters the banking industry. True since the 1930s, it is much more so today. And that makes Mr. Dimon no capitalist colossus astride the Isle of Manhattan, but one of the great welfare queens in America.


This bailout never ended. “In effect, we nationalized the biggest banks years ago,” Mr. Allison said. “We implicitly guaranteed them. The taxpayers are still the ultimate owners of the risk in those banks — they just don’t get equity returns for that ownership.”

So when taxpayers hear a bank chief, like Jamie Dimon, complaining, it’s worth keeping in mind that his 10-figure paycheck is largely coming courtesy of us.
As they say, read the whole thing.

UPDATE II: Apparently, there's nothing new under the sun:
Suppose we describe the following situation: major US financial institutions have badly overreached. They created and sold new financial instruments without understanding the risk. They poured money into dubious loans in pursuit of short-term profits, dismissing clear warnings that the borrowers might not be able to repay those loans. When things went bad, they turned to the government for help, relying on emergency aid and federal guarantees—thereby putting large amounts of taxpayer money at risk—in order to get by. And then, once the crisis was past, they went right back to denouncing big government, and resumed the very practices that created the crisis.

What year are we talking about?

We could, of course, be talking about 2008–2009, when Citigroup, Bank of America, and other institutions teetered on the brink of collapse, and were saved only by huge infusions of taxpayer cash. The bankers have repaid that support by declaring piously that it’s time to stop “banker-bashing,” and complaining that President Obama’s (very) occasional mentions of Wall Street’s role in the crisis are hurting their feelings.

But we could also be talking about 1991, when the consequences of vast, loan-financed overbuilding of commercial real estate in the 1980s came home to roost, helping to cause the collapse of the junk-bond market and putting many banks—Citibank, in particular—at risk. Only the fact that bank deposits were federally insured averted a major crisis. Or we could be talking about 1982–1983, when reckless lending to Latin America ended in a severe debt crisis that put major banks such as, well, Citibank at risk, and only huge official lending to Mexico, Brazil, and other debtors held an even deeper crisis at bay. Or we could be talking about the near crisis caused by the bankruptcy of Penn Central in 1970, which put its lead banker, First National City—later renamed Citibank—on the edge; only emergency lending from the Federal Reserve averted disaster.

You get the picture. The great financial crisis of 2008–2009, whose consequences still blight our economy, is sometimes portrayed as a “black swan” or a “100-year flood”—that is, as an extraordinary event that nobody could have predicted. But it was, in fact, just the most recent installment in a recurrent pattern of financial overreach, taxpayer bailout, and subsequent Wall Street ingratitude. And all indications are that the pattern is set to continue.
History adds perspective, including the perspective that the banksters are free-wheeling precisely because they know we will pull their chestnuts out of the fires they set, and never ask anything of them.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

We Need Better Books, Better Music, Better Randomness

With thanks to Feodor via Facebook comes this review, purporting to show links between the events and the popular musical choices of 1970. The review makes several interesting points, and a boner. The boner is that CSN&Y were one of the reasons punk came along. Actually, as a British phenomenon, punk was reacting against the music of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Yes, and ELP; in America, The Ramones were taking on Captain & Tenille, Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, and the hyper-produced, slick sounds emanating from LA's studios (think The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, that kind of thing).

More interesting for me is the choice of James Taylor. Taylor, a son of privilege with a variety of issues including a tendency toward mental instability and drug indulgence, spent a couple years in the late 1960's in The Beatles' orbit before landing with both feet as a singer-songwriter, the tunes being largely of the navel-gazing variety (although his covers of various tunes from Motown to the Brill Building were interesting, to say the least). No mention is made of Carole King's groundbreaking Tapestries, perhaps the most important pop recording of the year. Nor, as the reviewer notes, is mention made of Led Zeppelin II, or Captain Beefheart, or The Yes Album, and their subsequent US tour that brought them fame, money, and a new audience.

Reducing a year, a time, an era to a handful of artists is a dangerous game. Today's popular choices are tomorrow's trivia contest footnotes. A serious journalist, looking to do more than reflect on childhood memories, might well take a few moments to consider the huge variety of ways various musics emerge and how they reflect, or don't reflect, a time.

That being said, yesterday and today are both picture-perfect summer days pushing me to indulge some rare nostalgia for summer days of my youth spent running hither and yon. Normally, I try to remain clear-eyed about my childhood and youth but the days have been far too good not to take a few moments to remember those hazy, lazy, crazy days of summers gone by.

Here's a soundtrack, in part:

And now, something no one was expecting, the Spanish Inquisition without the confy chairs:
Dark Time - October Project
Present Joys - Alabama Sacred Harp Singers (Anthology of American Folk Music)
Swingtime in the Rockies - Benny Goodman (Live at Carnegie Hall, 1938)
Sysyphus, Part III - Pink Floyd
El Greco, Movement III - Vangelis
Telephone Calls From Istanbul - Tom Waits
Down The Road - Kansas
Only Child - Steven Wilson
Low-Spark of High-Heeled Boys - Traffic
Pretender - James LaBrie

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Go Team!

When I first arrived on the internet five years ago, I discovered a most interesting phenomenon. Most people discussing various topics act like they are still in high school.

For example, I used to spend quite a bit of my internet time hanging out over at Huffington Post. One of the folks who posted frequently over there wrote on the topic of evolution. Along the way would come the occasional observation, stated axiomatically, that no one could be a real Christian and accept the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Since this was the moment in the sun for people like Sam Harris, who insisted the religion had never, ever, in any society at any place or time, done any positive thing for humanity, and Richard Dawkins, who rewrote, rather poorly, Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian, and Christopher Hitchens, whose atheism is both broad and deep, yet allows him to side with some of the most narrow-minded religious bigots in contemporary American politics, this was a common enough observation.

After reading this line several times, repeated without any reasons or arguments, merely stated as fact, I offered that, as a Christian who also accepts (I do not like "believes in" as a way of describing my adherence to any scientific theory; science is not a matter of belief) biological evolution, his statement as a categorical axiom was wrong. What I got in response was, in its shortest version, that I didn't know what I was talking about.

Along the way, I encountered other sentiments. For example, the idea that religious education was child abuse. Not religious education in some weird cult where kids are taught weird things like sexual precocity and the like. No, just run-of-the-mill religious instruction. The usual case was, again, the dispute between scientists and creationists. Parents who would prefer their children not learn the theory of evolution were, it was reasoned, creating a situation where their children would be deprived of information and understanding that would, in the long run, be detrimental to them. The state has to step in and insist that such practices had to stop, in the name of protecting both the children from harm and promoting the value of scientific education.

Then, of course, there are the various iterations of complaints against the Tea Party - in particular, that it is a political movement akin to fascism, rooted in racism. I dealt with this particular matter a couple weeks ago. It seems, however, that other variations of a kind of disdain for conservatives exist, which include but are not limited to the screeching, "They're gonna put us all in concentration camps!!!" Essentially, it rewards liberals for being so much more intelligent, thoughtful, able to use critical reason than our conservative brothers and sisters. Those who make this claim seem to have some scientific evidence on their side. My guess is the studies linked here are what Jeanine Garofalo refer to in the discussion noted by Bob Somerby.

Please note I say "seem" in the above paragraph. I find many troubling things with the presentation of the studies. The British study does have an abstract available online, which reads in part:
Recent work has shown a correlation between liberalism and conflict-related activity measured by event-related potentials originating in the anterior cingulate cortex [4]. Here we show that this functional correlate of political attitudes has a counterpart in brain structure. In a large sample of young adults, we related self-reported political attitudes to gray matter volume using structural MRI. We found that greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala. These results were replicated in an independent sample of additional participants. Our findings extend previous observations that political attitudes reflect differences in self-regulatory conflict monitoring [4] and recognition of emotional faces [5] by showing that such attitudes are reflected in human brain structure. Although our data do not determine whether these regions play a causal role in the formation of political attitudes, they converge with previous work [4,6] to suggest a possible link between brain structure and psychological mechanisms that mediate political attitudes. (italics added)
In other words, there's different stuff going on the brains of self-identified liberals and self-identified conservatives. That's all they found. Hardly definitive, at least to me.

Here's the thing - I refuse to reward myself, or others who hold views similar to mine, with any virtue. We liberals aren't better human beings. Conservatives aren't stupid. All this Manichaeism with a scientific veneer is repugnant to me for a variety of reasons. Not the least of these reasons is the simple one that there just isn't one simple, correct answer to the conundrum of human existence. While I certainly have a set of conditions and responses rooted in my life-experience and reflection, I would hardly insist it is, let alone should be, normative. Furthermore, promoting any notion that there is scientific evidence for disparate political ideologies veers far to close to phrenology, which proved that Africans were inferior to Caucasians; to any ideology that purports to show, definitively, that one group of human beings is inherently superior to another.

If we are to find our way out of our duldrums, the first thing we need to surrender is ego - the need to be right. This does not mean pointing out all sorts of errors, either of fact or reason, when we encounter them. It just means not making general observations out of specific instances of inanity and stupidity. Sarah Palin is not representative of conservatives any more than Teddy Kennedy - with his various romps with a variety of women - is representative of liberals.

I don't play for any team, so don't expect me to cheer-lead. The times call for sacrificing adherence to the preference for being right.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Hidden Histories

My Uncle David Johnston is my mother's younger brother. A big man in his mid-80's, David's many health problems are catching up with him. Garrulous and loud - like most members of the Johnston clan - intelligent and witty, David can regale visitors for hours, without a visitor getting a word in edgewise.

Some of those stories would surprise anyone looking at the aged, sickly old man might surprise you. Others would shock you. See, when David joined the Marine Corps right out of high school, his aptitude tests were off the charts. After boot camp he went to Special Intelligence School.

See, David was a spook.

In the mid-1950's, newly married, David and his lovely bride Billie lived in Columbus, OH where David worked while attending Ohio State University. He returned home one day to find a strange car parked catty-corner from his house, a man slumped down in the front seat. David snuck around the corner, entering his house from the backdoor and told Billie to call the police. He left the way he entered, only this time he was armed. He came up behind the car, making sure the driver wasn't looking in the mirror, then yanked the door open and dragged out the man sitting behind the wheel, pinning him to the ground and putting his sidearm in the guy's face just as the police pulled up.

David had managed to wrangle a police detective staking out a possible house of ill-repute up the street from where David and Billie lived (must have been a great neighborhood). David told the police officers that they needed to move their stakeout.

Why did he react this way?

Because he was a spook.

There are so many stories out there, far too many we will never hear first-hand, because those involved, while living, were ordered never to speak. Then, long past the point when silence made little difference, they took their secrets to the grace with them. One was David's (and my mother's) oldest brother, Eugene Johnston. Junior entered the Navy on December 8, 1941, then after boot camp at Great Lakes, disappeared. His wartime service was a blank slate until he, like David, became elderly and the pressure of all that forgetting became too much. He and David shared their stories with one another (including Junior revealing that he knew about David's secret marriage because he lost his security clearance over it; long story) until, a couple years ago, Junior passed away. Lost with him are so many stories that fill in the details not so much of his life, but of our understanding of how we Americans conducted the war.

I got thinking about all these lost stories after reading this story in today's Washington Post. One huge takeaway from this story, as well as David's and Junior's, is thinking carefully about those elderly folks we see, and often complain about. They drive slow. They walk slow. They seem to need so much more, which confronts us with our own mortality and the price we may pay for getting older.

Yet, so many of them hold secrets that might shock us. Or scare us. Or leave us in awe. We need to remember, as Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" passes from this earth that so many of them carry around stories of horror and heroism, of duty fulfilled and cost paid, that many of us younger folks can barely imagine. We need to remember that the next time grumble about some old guy driving too slow down the road, or tottering in front of us in the Mall, slowing us down in our dire need to get to Aeropostale. We owe our roads and malls, the very fact of our on-going life as a nation, to folks who did all sorts of things about which we will never know.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

On Marriage - Gay, Straight, In The Past, In The Future . . . And Mine

Kudos to New York, in particular Gov. Andrew Cuomo for working so hard to get marriage equality passed in my home state. All the same, there have always been voices of dissent that question the value of the institution. What follows is little more than some thoughts to spark interest, perhaps thoughts of your own.
I saw this over at Eschaton yesterday, and it sums up what I've said, too many times, about marriage.
It shouldn't be too hard to understand that there is, effectively, a secular state aspect to what we call marriage - mostly a property contract - and then there's the part that's between you, your mate, and, if you care, your church/religion and they ultimately don't have all that much to do with each other.
Checking out the summer issue of New Politics, there is an article entitled "A Young Radical's View of Marriage". It was nice to read the view I put forth on marriage as rooted in property rights (including the legitimacy of children) was also held by Friedrich Engels. Nice company.

An important point she raises, with which I neither agree nor disagree, is that, in contemporary American society, not only a favorable view of the institution but the practical use made of it is determined by race and class distinctions that render so many of the voices defending what they call "traditional marriage" suspect on a variety of grounds. Both survey data of attitudes as well as trends in marriage over time show pretty definitively that, if you are white and upper-middle class or higher, you are far more likely both to have a positive view of the institution and actually get married than if you are poor, African-American, or Latino. With particular emphasis on African-Americans and the history of attempts to destroy the slave family ties, it seems to me a radical view such as this faces serious questions. All the same the reality of the lack of attractiveness of the institution in certain groups, and its lack of practice, certainly raise questions that have not been addressed by the shouting over the matter.

After setting out various arguments against marriage, from both political radicals and feminists from Emma Goldman (who was both) to Betty Friedan, the author admits her own misgivings about the state-recognized institution while desiring the kind of communal celebration of long-term commitment that we usually associate with a wedding:
Personally, I like the idea of having a public ceremony — minus the religious trappings — where I declare my love for my partner in front of those I care about, and then we eat cake. I even like the idea of both of us being dressed up when we do this. But, particularly with the divorce rate as high as it is, I don’t feel eager to enter an institution that I associate with social inequality and housework. In my foggy vision of the future, my partner and I stand before a gathering of family and friends and recite love poems or self-made vows, then share a meal with people we love. At some point, maybe, there is dancing, which, unlike marriage, Emma Goldman might have appreciated. Then we move on with our equal and independent lives, with some commitment to togetherness and chore-sharing. It’s a simple idea, and one more ancient than the origin of property rights.
In the course of the article was a link to a Boston Review article by a historian that debunks the idea put forth by opponents of marriage equality that marriage has always been the same (at least in the west; I rarely see evidence or discussion of non-western marital practices).
Opponents of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples say that marriage has always been between a man and a woman and must remain so. They argue from “tradition.” Counter to their claims is an argument from history—a history of change over time.

Many features of marriage that were once considered essential have been remade, often in the face of strong resistance, by courts and legislatures. Economic and social changes have led to increasing legal equality for the marriage partners, gender-neutrality of spousal roles, and control of marital role-definition by spouses themselves rather than by state prescription. Yet marriage itself has lasted, despite these dramatic changes. Not only that: it retains vast appeal.
One particular point needs to be emphasized here: The history of marriage in America, from colonial times to the present, emphasizes the legal, contractual, secular institution over any religious principle.
Seventeenth-century English colonists in North America created marriage laws almost immediately upon settling. In England the established Anglican Church ruled marriages, but rather than replicate that arrangement or treat marriage as a sacrament (as Catholics do), colonial legislators asserted that marriage was a “civil thing” because it dealt with matters of property. Although the great majority of colonists believed in the basic tenets of Christian monogamy, colonial legislators explicitly rejected religious authority over marriage. Thus even before the American Revolution, marriage was deemed a civil institution, regulated by government to promote the common good.

After the founding of the United States, state after state maintained this principle. State laws allowed religious authorities to perform marriage ceremonies and to recognize only marriages adhering to the requirements of their own faith, but not to determine which marriages would be considered valid by the public. For example, California’s first state Constitution stipulated, “No contract of marriage, if otherwise duly made, shall be invalidated for want of conformity to the requirements of any religious sect,” a provision now retained in the state’s Family Code. To be sure, many people, then as now, invested marriage with religious significance, but that had no bearing on any marriage’s legality.
With the arrival of same-sex marriage, civil unions (such as here in Illinois), and the general trend toward acceptance of marriage equality across the country, time, history, and sentiment seem to be on the side of changing, yet again, our understanding of marriage.

I would like to add some thoughts from my own 18 years of marriage to the mix. First of all, neither Lisa nor I got married for reasons of legal or financial expedience. On the contrary, when we got married, we were so poor, I can't imagine any of that stuff being anywhere in our thoughts. We married for what most would call old-fashioned reasons: we loved one another, wanted to spend our lives together. We didn't talk about children at all, other than to agree we did not want children right away. For a bit of time, six months or so, we even talked seriously about remaining childless.

Most of all, when we first talked about getting married, I insisted that I did not want Lisa taking my name. I did not like the implications of it, that she was a piece of property that changed hands, the name-change signifying a change of ownership from her father to me. After some discussion, we decided that we would both hyphenate. We went to the DC Social Security office the week after we got married and when time came, we changed our names on both our Social Security numbers. The clerk behind the desk looked at me like I was from Mars and said, "You don't have to do this. Only she does."

I smiled and said, "I'm changing my name, too."

He looked at me, then looked at Lisa and said, "Lady, he must really love you," then handed over the form for me to fill out.

The name change is important. Getting married changed both of us. I'm not who I was before I got married. The change wrought by marriage affects us both. If I sat around with the same name, what would that tell anyone? Taking Lisa's last name and adding it to my own - not just conventionally but legally - tells the world that we are in this together. We are partners, equals.

In that sense, then, Lisa and I do not have a "traditional" marriage, for which I am thankful. We are hardly a conventional, traditional couple. Our example, I think, makes the simple (but largely unnoticed) point that each and every actual marriage adds its own distinctive color to our collective understanding of the institution. Non-traditional marriages, in whatever form they may take, accumulate change over time that leads to changing legal understandings. It usually begins, however, with couples making choices about their lives, just as Lisa Kruse and I did all those years ago.

Marriage is not some ideal "thing", but a mixture of legal definitions and actual marriages between real human beings, all of which change over time. As we move toward marriage equality in more and more states, our understanding of what marriage "is", or what it might be, will continue to change and grow, or perhaps shrink and fade. Whatever happens, it is an institution that changes each and every time a judge or priest or minister or rabbi or imam or some other officiant says, "I now pronounce you husband and wife."

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