Saturday, April 18, 2015

An Attack of Gas

I note that Oklahoma has legalized the use of nitrogen gas as an execution method, though stifling people in this fashion has never been tested and it would raise certain ethical issues to run a phase one trial. In any case, you’d think that opting for helium would have demonstrated a more developed sense of humor on the part of the legislature.  Really, I don’t know why we have so much trouble with this issue. We worry about how much a handful of condemned murderers will suffer, but we routinely torture living inmates.

The solution to the execution problem should be obvious to anybody who has taken Econ 101. There are surely many wealthy people who would pay a good price for the right to kill somebody with impunity, thus providing much needed revenue to the state while making the choice of lethal instrumentality a question for whoever was willing to pay the most. Privatizing state-sanctioned murder has the added benefit of undercutting a familiar argument against capital punishment. Opponents are forever carping that execution is much more expensive then life imprisonment. My suggestion would make the death house a profit center. A win-win situation.

Monday, April 13, 2015


Paradoxes were popular in my youth. It was the age of Gödel, Escher, Bach, a time when college kids wondered out loud whether the critique of an ideology could ever be anything but another ideology, when we all admired the Heroic Struggle of the Little People to Finish the Mural and wondered what we would have seen in the barbershop mirror if our heads weren’t in the way. Well, rapid transit gloria mundi. In the midst of the Cambrian explosion of consumer electronics, Cratylus is even more apropos than Heraclitus. It’s all you can do to step into the same river once. Under the circumstances, who has the time to be mesmerized by the mise en abyme of consciousness? Small wonder the world snake seems intent on biting somebody else’s tail these days. In the words of the irritated vulture, “patience my ass, I’m going to kill something!” Neurosis has given way to perversity, which, oddly enough, involves fewer kinks, at least from a topological point of view.  

Presumably we prefer things to be straightforward. Sadly, you can’t always get what you want, at least in world politics. Evidently Escher isn’t quite obsolete yet. Middle Eastern geopolitics is an ever-ascending (or descending) staircase. Iran is our enemy in Lebanon and Syria where it supports Hisbollah, which supports Assad, but our friend in Iraq where it fights ISIS, which fights Assad. Meanwhile, we scold the Pakistanis for oppressing the Shia, but send weapons to help the Saudis bomb and perhaps invade Yemen even though the Saudis oppress the Shia that live in the eastern part of their country. The Republicans don’t know whether to denounce Obama as a secret Muslim or a secret Shi’ite, which is perhaps more damning since for the most part, the Christians, at least the right wing ones, definitely lean Sunni. Even Senator McCain, an obligate carnivore in foreign policy, may be forgiven some confusion when it comes to deciding whom to attack, at least whom to attack first.

What we have here is what solid-state physicists describe as a frustrated system, “one where the interactions compete with each other and cannot be simultaneously satisfied.” If it were merely a matter of coming up with an economically rational policy or an ideologically coherent policy or a geopolitically shrewd policy, a solution set wouldn’t be so hard to compute. The equation we insist on solving, however, has only imaginary solutions.

Riyadh is the hometown of radical Islam, and Saudi royalty orchestrated the oil shocks that derailed the American economy back in the 70s. That bunch runs one of the world’s most repressive regimes. You’d think this absurd and malignant monarchy would be enemy number one, especially after prominent Saudis financed 9/11 and a bunch of young Saudis carried it out. Yes, but there’s all that oil. Meanwhile, Iran continues to be the focus of perpetual hatred for reasons that are never spelled out in public. At the behest of first the British and then the Israelis, we’ve bankrolled coups, propped up a tyrant, encouraged a foreign invader to kill hundreds of thousands of Iranians, shot down an airliner, attempted to impoverish the country with non-stop sanctions, and engaged in cyberwar against it—I guess it’s something that we left it to the Israelis to do the murdering of Iranian scientists. I suppose our continuing hostility to the Iranians makes a certain human sense. Like Southern racists, we’ve acted so badly that we can’t change our attitudes now without admitting how insupportable our actions have been for decades. So we keep pretending that Iran is a major threat even though from a Real Politik perspective, Iran doesn't make much more sense as an enemy, so much so that we're finding it next to impossible not to treat them as allies.

Of course, it is far easier for an Israeli to make a case for war with Iran in view of their support for anti-Israeli groups in Lebanon and Gaza and the prospect that an Iran with even a rudimentary nuclear weapon would break Israel’s monopoly on atomic weapons in the region and limit its ability to bomb and invade its neighbors, something it has done, after all, on a great many occasions. But it’s not enough to prevent the Iranians from getting a bomb. The pot must boil indefinitely to provide cover for the gradual annexation of the West Bank and deflect attention from the obvious bankruptcy of the Zionist ideal in the eyes of the world at large. Real peace is a serious threat for a nation that looks more and more like South Africa before Mandela.

Why the U.S. puts up with endlessly being played by Netanyahu and company takes more explaining, though obviously the political leverage of the Israelis with both the Democrats and the Republicans has a lot to do with it. But maybe it’s just become a habit. For obvious reasons, many Americans and Europeans had a great deal of sympathy for the Jews in the wake of the horrors of World War II, certainly more sympathy than they had for the Palestinian, who were too different from us to count. Things are somewhat different now, but I remember that it was well into the 60’s before a spokesman for the swarthy others was even allowed to make his case on PBS—Palestinians in those days were as apologetic and cowed in their rare public appearances as members of the Mattachine Society before the Stonewall riots. Israel had its uses during the Cold War—one forgets how tense things got between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in ‘67 and ‘73. It’s also true that Israeli society is admired here for many defensible and some indefensible reasons—Israel is a democracy, albeit a herrenvolk democracy, with a vibrant intellectual life, and it is also the kind of ethno-theocracy that many Republicans wish America could be. Still, absent domestic political imperatives, no American administration would keep giving Israel billions in aid every year without putting an end to the settlements.

Dealing with this epic game of pick up sticks requires a light touch and a tolerance for complexity, but above all a recognition that local victories may result in overall defeat. What I hear from many politicians is a simply a call for acting out. “Do something, damn it!” In all probability the Republicans will run on a policy of going to war against Iran. The thinking appears to be that if we jump off the roof, we’ll be perfectly OK until we pass the fifth floor on the way down, at which point we can reassess the situation.