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I was looking forward to writing about that crown that was stolen in Germany…but I guess we will have to wait until tomorrow to talk about stolen crowns. Today the President of the United States, the famous New York real estate conman Donald Trump, fired the Director of the FBI for investigating the extent to which the Trump electoral team colluded with the Russian effort to undermine or taint the American election. This was, of course, not the reason given for Comey’s summary dismissal, but it is exceedingly difficult to draw any other conclusion. Director Comey was a divisive and flawed figure in his own right. Some eminent neutral observers blame his strange behavior last year for Hilary Clinton’s shocking electoral loss. However, now that he has gone off to join Sally Yates, Preet Bharara, and everyone else who has investigated Trump, it is looking like he was the best FBI Director we are likely to get. Who knows what cartoonishly malevolent or benighted figure the administration will dig up to replace him?
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The whole episode paints a disturbing picture–but the dark image which is emerging is hardly unexpected to anyone who has any familiarity with Donald Trump.
Trump reminds me of a naked drunkard dancing on banana peels at the top of a tall slippery marble staircase with a huge ornate cake at the bottom. It seems like there is only one way this scenario could possibly end, and yet his comeuppance keeps on being deferred by the increasingly irrational and cowardly behavior of everyone else. Trump is an old man who lives on steak and hamburger and does not exercise, it is possible he will manage to escape falling into the cake (or, to be less allegorical: he might avoid impeachment and prison because of a massive coronary). Yet, as we all breathlessly await his tragicomic downfall, he is doing terrible damage to institutions the nation really needs, and he is undermining our faith in each other and ourselves.

A few years ago, I was talking once with my uncle about a colleague of his, a Chinese scientist who naturalized to America to work as a physicist. This colleague had a son who had excelled in school and otherwise had a life of great promise, however, when my uncle asked what career he had chosen, the Chinese-American physicist was reluctant to talk about it. My uncle thought that the promising son had fallen into drugs or crime and was happily astonished when the physicist confessed that his son had become a successful FBI agent. But to a Chinese person, being part of the national secret police was not a thing to talk about or be proud of. If we are not careful we could find ourselves in a similar situation here.
Most people do not think of the FBI as the internal police (although that is clearly what they are). The Bureau has its own checkered history (I bet Donald Trump would not have dared to fire J. Edgar Hoover) yet their bravery, zeal, and hard work are rightly famous. If a movie has an FBI agent, he is usually the hero. We don’t call dismissively call the FBI the secret police because if, goodness forbid, there were a crisis we would be happy to see them. They have a worldwide reputation as a bastion of upright cops. They are the good guys.
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And now, like affordable health care, or national parks, or basic scientific research, this too is under threat because of the corrosive awfulness of our executive branch. Are the FBI to become a bunch of goons who exist for the president’s narcissism and self-aggrandizement and to protect his crooked international business deals? Think of how awful it is to even suggest that!
Republicans are exulting over the unprecedented power they have garnered (in an election where they solidly lost the popular vote). They are passing immensely unpopular legislation and privatising big hunks of the government to their cronies. They are gleefully making it easy for the president to get away with anything he likes. It is difficult to see how they think it could possibly end for them. Do they imagine Trump will reign forever? Do they not see or care how bad he is for them and the things they claim to care about?
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The danger to democracies is that the institutions start to seem corrupt and nobody believes in them causing a feedback spiral. When I try to talk to hard-working and idealistic Millenials about politics they all seem SO cynical (and I am a world-weary Generation X person). Clearly, they have bought into the false equivalency of seeing all politicians as the same. It does not shock them to suggest that the FBI could be easily subalterned. They do not have illusions that the system is anything other than a rigged game of business cartels and their pet politicians. I find that sad. If they had just gone out and voted, none of this would be a problem. Their cynicism has deepened the problems they are cynical about.

There are good people at the FBI and among the Republicans (although it is hard to imagine that congressmen have a principled reason for letting little kids die so that giant crooked insurance companies can become more rich, I am sure they truly think it is for the best). But these good people need to step up and speak out. We need to keep concentrating on the fact that we are all on the same side. Not red versus blue, but Americans together against corruption, malfeasance, and iniquity. We need to celebrate bravery when it appears. I thought Sally Yates was superb this week. She was the attorney general just a few short months ago… We need to keep asking questions until we get real answers and not stupid malarkey.
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This post is a reminder that we need to keep believing in our institutions and trying to support them (even if it seems increasingly possible that the President of the United States could be a traitor and a criminal who is surrounding himself with white supremacists and weak minded yes-men).

Jeremiad over: have a good night!

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It is January 20, 2017, the day of the inauguration of Donald John Trump, casino magnate, television personality, and media provocateur as 45th President of the United States of America. Now, bad presidents come and go. The country has had plenty of liars, knuckleheads, perverts, and even a life dictator in the highest office (the life dictator actually turned out to be pretty ok, but we made sure to change the rules as soon as he was dead).  Yet Trump strikes me as something special.

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From now until when he keels over dead, the papers are going to be chock full of Trump’s bloviations, crimes, vulgarities, enormities, and attention-seeking behaviors (I am not sure if Trump will seize permanent hold of the presidency, if mortality will catch him before four years are up, or if he will go on to bigger better things, but I am absolutely sure we are going to hear about everything he does until he moves on to the great reality show hereafter).  This success at attention seeking is the greatest source of Trump’s power. It is how he has built a cult of personality unrivaled by all but our greatest presidents (who were honorable enough to turn their backs on such dangerous and undemocratic personal style). Trump knows that outrage and hate are just as good for his aims as praise.  All of the anti-Trump editorials and essays have helped him. He has discovered that fame in contemporary America is like absolute value in mathematics: it doesn’t matter whether it is negative or positive.

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let a equal publicity

Therefor I am going to avoid hating further on the Donald. It only helps him.  I am going to confront his personality cult indirectly by comparing him to the thing that interests me the most, but which Trump would least like to be—me! a broke nobody artist. I will look at Donald Trump as a human and see if we have anything in common.

I had this idea when I was at the Duane Reade downstairs at the Trump building at 40 Wall Street, Trump’s downtown office (which is next to the title insurance office where I work as a sad little clerk during the day).  Duane Reade posts all of its prices in terms of what you would pay if you had a Duane Reade discount card (which is probably actually a vector for Duane Reade to sell all of your information to insurance companies and drug companies).   Without this horrible card, everything rings up for 20% to 30% more than you expect to pay.

At the beginning of the presidential campaign, when Trump was merely one of many improbable Republican candidates, one of my colleagues ran into him shopping at Duane Reade. Trump was by himself buying an armful of hair spray (honest!), and was nice enough to take a picture with my coworker.  The other day, as I paid 20% extra for my gummy bears and salve, I wondered if Trump has one of these awful cards for his hairspray, or if he too must suffer the same frustration when his goods all cost more than they are marked.

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It made me think of him differently—not as a dictator come to crush America, nor as a gold-orange idol on tv, but as an actual person, and from there, in a rush I realized we share much more than I would like to admit.

Donald Trump and I both came from successful WASP families.  Instead of being merchants and businesspeople, my family are scientists and administrators.  But both groups made their way up by working hard.

Trump and I both went to similar colleges: The University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago.  We are both tall and goofy looking and we both make our money in the same business—real estate– although we could not be at more different places on the ladder (and Trump has recently left for public service).

From there the similarities become more disturbing. We both have a history of failed businesses that have left us with deep scars. We are both straight but can’t seem to make relationships last. Trump and I love New York City unconditionally (even though the city doesn’t seem to love us back).  Each is secretly anxious that he is not actually good enough and so desperate to appear smart that he seems foolish… each is a rather silly man who is terribly, terribly worried about what people think of him.

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Please not the same hair…please not the same hair!

 

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Arrrgh!

I hope you kin that the point of this is not that Trump and I are a lot alike (I actually think we are profoundly different).  The point is we need to stop concentrating on him as a unique personality and start looking at him as another politician. And we need to stop letting him get our goat.

Trump scares me and being scared makes people do stupid things. I have been so angry when I looked at self-satisfied or annoying posts on Facebook, that I felt like breaking off my social interactions with people I grew up with.  I have come terribly close to angrily denouncing everyone in rural America as “deplorables” and swearing off West Virginia. More often than I would care to admit, Trump has filled my heart with blinding rage

My family has a dark saying.  It is counter intuitive (and probably stolen from a ballad or a fifties tv show), but it turns out to be disconcertingly true: “You become what you hate”.  You see it everywhere:  social justice advocates who hate people for the circumstances of their birth, or folks who imagine all of some different sort of people are racists. Look at Trump’s die-hard followers who lambast city dwellers for being selfish and self-satisfied!  Look at allegedly egalitarian city dwellers making fun of people for poverty and a lack of educational opportunities!

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If we go down the path we are on, we are ALL going to be more like Trump than we ever want to be.  We will not have his wealth or his facile ability to manipulate people by appealing to their greed. We will instead have his talent for sewing discord, ruining things, and bringing hatred and fear to the United States with hyperbole and bad ideas. By being afraid and despising him with our whole hearts we will make our fears come true. We will start to hate our friends and neighbors.  Look into your heart and ask how you are already like the president.  I have a feeling you will find more points of comparison than you will be comfortable with.

Donald Trump has not even been president a whole day and he has already divided the country further than any time since the Civil War.   Eris is stealing the crown of liberty in America. The solution is not to concentrate on how hateful he is personally. The solution is to talk about how we can cooperate to actually get things working  and make of our dreams come true. Billionaires don’t dream of killing little kids on the street. Coal miners don’t want the world to cook and choke. Even Donald Trump loves his family and wants a world where his grandkids can grow up safe and healthy (to someday bate the press in their own ways).  We are all more similar than we would like to admit. But that shouldn’t be a shameful admission.  It should make us stronger, smarter, and kinder.

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Well, the American election is coming up tomorrow. I have tried not to write too much about this great national contest, since every other media channel in the world has covered it non-stop for 20 months now, but I guess it is time for Ferrebeekeeper to hop down into this mudpit and support a candidate. In the past, when there has not been such difference between candidates, I have supported voting out incumbents or cross-voting (i.e. voting blue in red states or red in blue states). Alas, Americans neglected my fine advice and we are now experiencing some real national strife, so for the 2016 election I am advocating a different course to unite the troubled nation.

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Hilary Clinton should be our president. If you are a voting-age United States citizen you should vote Democratic up and down the ticket.

Now,  admittedly Hilary is 1) grasping, 2) secretive, and 3)shifty , but she exhibits these traits well within the ordinary operating tolerances of American politicians.  Indeed, in the right light, and, with a bit of squinting, these traits could be 1) ambition, without which, no one would be a politician to begin with, 2) the ability to plan, and, 3) the ability to compromise and change tack based on the circumstances.  Additionally, she personally knows every important leader in the world. Above all, she is a workaholic, a smart person, and somebody who cares that the nation succeeds and prospers.

So there are some very legitimate reasons to hope that Clinton will be our own iron lady (provided she can jettison this stupid rubbish about how free trade and globalism are bad for us). Hopefully she can also project American power a bit more robustly than certain presidents in order to gladden our allies and dismay our enemies.  She certainly has vast experience of public life, a sharp mind, and an indomitable will. So I am not merely voting for Hilary because of the despicable nature of her opponent.
Speaking of whom: beyond Donald Trump’s lack of policy, his ignorance of world affairs, and his extremely shady business practices, there is one overriding reason Trump should never be president: he is mean. He takes personal delight in cruelty, violence, and spite, in a way which I have not seen in another American politician (or even in any other person except for a few outliers in Junior High School whom I suspect have long since been hanged). Because of his sadistic streak, I have been sad to see Trump win over so many voters.  New Yorkers know that he is a con man, a loser, and a violent lout, why can’t everyone see these things about him? I kind of suspect it is more about primatology and less about people sharing Trump’s atrocious values–I certainly hope so.
But enough. Too much has been said about Trump.  The whole world has paid attention to him for far too long.  However I would like to talk about Trump supporters before the election ends tomorrow and we pretend we never have to think about this again.  The followers fall into two different categories: established Republican political leaders (who have always pretended to be lukewarm, although I don’t think that is really the case), and grass-roots political supporters who tend to be rural working-class whites.
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Appallingly, the Republican establishment has supported Trump even though anyone who has lead people in any capacity can plainly see he is not a worthy leader. This is why I recommend you vote against all the Republicans tomorrow.  A lot of writers and talking heads have acted like they are sorry for Paul Ryan, or Ted Cruz, or other Republicans who have been forced to support Trump. This is ridiculous. Those people haven’t been forced to do any of the things they have done. They have chosen their actions for specific reasons, and they should be judged accordingly. The current Republican leaders have been throttling the government of resources so that it doesn’t work right and then acting as though this somehow the fault of government. They have been throttling people of resources so they don’t work right and acting as though it is the fault of people. They are behind Trump not out of fear (although they do strike me as singularly cowardly) but out of lust.  If Trump wins they will be able to use his inattentive narcissism to remake the country in a grasping and mean-spirited way of their choosing.
Which brings us to Trump’s grassroots support. I am a West Virginian.  The whole nation makes fun of the state and this is generally regarded as fair sport (since, among the chattering class, it is not uncouth to make fun of poor white people the way it is regarded as bad form to make fun of poor brown ones). Additionally, the benefits of globalization have not much “trickled down” into West Virginia, except perhaps in the form of fracking revenues. To my horror, West Virginians are taking their revenge by voting for Trump. It is like the capuchin throwing away the cucumber.  It will not help them.  Indeed, this time, such spiteful protest could actively hurt us all.

East Flatbush, the Afro-Caribbean immigrant neighborhood where I live now reminds me greatly of Clay County—in bad ways and good ones.  Poverty, addiction and and feuding are big problems, but the great bravery, loyalty, and personal generosity of the inhabitants tends to keep everyone moving forward and make life worthwhile. The distinction between city and country is a false one.  The distinction between Americans of different races, religions, and genders is likewise not so big as some people would make it out to be. Democrats for all of their flaws, believe in a united nation.  Lately Republicans are deliberately dividing us so they can get everything they and they alone want. The Democrats are wrong-headed and frustrating. They tend to neglect the two most important issues in front of us, research and national defense.  But Republicans have stopped caring about these issues as well and they are actively trying to injure the nation so that they can advance their own agenda.  This political infighting is causing people to lose faith in the system (which feeds into the “government is broken” death cycle which is so dangerous).

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The United States needs to be careful.  The Han Dynasty and the Soviet Union stopped thinking they were countries and suddenly they were not. We are the United States of America, but it could be otherwise. Anyone who wants to be president should recognize that the nation needs both the sharp-eyed riflemen from West Virginia and the shrewd-minded accountants from Montclair–and all sorts of people from everywhere else (Hillary Clinton, an Appalachian who ended up in New York, knows this) . The states and their people are deeply heterogeneous but stand beside each other through any crisis–structural, cyclical, or natural. We are not the “Fiscally Independent and Selfishly Aloof States of America”. Our name is much finer than that.  Let us remember that on election day…and all of the other days after that.  We must work hard with President Clinton so that the election of 2020 is not so divisive and awful.

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One of the defining characteristics of warriors in this age of the world is their camouflage garb.  The brave men and women of the Army, Marines, and even the Air Force all have combat fatigues which make use of broken stippled patterns of drab colors meant to conceal them from the eyes of enemy combatants…but what about the Navy?  Sailors tend to be mercilessly prone to being spotted—since they are generally located on huge floating metal arrays belching out smoke above the flat blue seas.  Ferrebeekeeper has written about attempts to camouflage ships, but what about the men aboard these vessels?

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Perhaps the absence of camouflage—as much a part of a soldier’s identity as a sword was in the past–is why the US Navy decided to try blue digital camouflage work clothes (aka aquaflage).  However that experiment is now coming to an end.  The navy is discontinuing the production of the chunky blue-black-gray suits as of October 1st (although the final phase-out of service will be three years from now).

There were a lot of problems with these suits.  The tunics and trousers feature a pattern which resembled a ghastly mélange of bluefish chunks and hematite.  And the purpose was unclear too.  Was this for sailors who were trying to hide in the ocean itself…or in a bad nineties music video?

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The outcry against the uniforms was not solely aesthetic.  Apparently these awful things were hot and were prone to melting and catching on fire (although I guess those are aesthetic concerns too—who wants to be seen wearing melted sardines and asphalt or running around in a flaming sailor suit?)

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The uniforms came into service in the not-very-great year of 2008.  Maybe they were part of the same sort of wooly thinking which caused the great recession or, more-likely, the result of an unsavory deal between a vendor and a politician in charge of appropriations.  The suits which are formally known as “Navy Working Uniform Type I” will be replaced by green camo known as “Navy Working Uniform Type III” (apparently Type II uniforms were a sort of invisible khaki color).  This will solve the sailors’ fashion woes, but now everybody is going to think that they are army guys.  Maybe the Navy needs to give up on camouflaged sailors and return to some stylish 18th century horizontal stripes!

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If they want to be inconspicuous, they can just stop playing bagpipes….

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Happy Birthday to the United States of America!

In past years we have celebrated Independence Day with an historic picture gallery, possible national animals, and an essay concerning the lackluster national mascot, Uncle Sam. This year, let’s return to the basics: recreational explosives, or, as they are more commonly called “fireworks”. Blowing things up artistically in the sky has been the preferred method of celebrating this nation’s birthday since the 18th century.

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Fireworks were first made in China, but today they are almost entirely manufactured in, um, China. As such, Chinese symbols and names are a big part of fireworks. This is lucky for ferrebeekeeper since snakes, poultry, bees, wasps, flowers, and badass mammals like tigers, cats, and wolves are mainstay names for mass produced fireworks.

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I live in Brooklyn, and I can’t buy fireworks (much less light them off). Nevertheless the best part of fireworks is looking at the packages and fantasizing about the awesomeness which is just a spark away. Here is a gallery of firework packages which fit in Ferrebeekeeper’s topics array. Bees and birds are the best represented since not only do they fly but they are also beautiful and dazzling. I especially like the egg-laying hens which shoot exploding “eggs” out of their tail feathers. Unsurprisingly there are plenty of flowers, snakes, tigers, and hissing cats, but I was surprised to find pine trees, crowns, and octopus fireworks. Naturally outer space was featured, yet sadly there were no fireworks named for gods of the underworld (although I did find some “banshees”, which almost count).

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Wow! I’m sorry we can’t wait for dusk and light these all off, but local laws prohibit that (as does the nature of reality). Enjoy the colorful exploding anemones in the sky at your local show and have a lovely weekend of feasting and drinking with your family and friends (and, for my international readers, I guess just keep savoring the world cup…your own national fireworks celebrations should be just around the corner).  Fireworks remind everyone that life is brief and it isn’t safe, but it is beautiful and amazing!

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Huzzah!

The Korean Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area at Panmunjom

The Korean Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area at Panmunjom

On August 21, 1976, the joint military forces of the United States and South Korea launched Operation Paul Bunyan, a mission which involved 813 fighting men on the ground (including a platoon of South Korean martial arts experts wired with Claymore mines), 27 military helicopters, a number of B-52 high altitude bombers with their jet fighter escorts, and the aircraft carrier Midway along with its attack group of missile cruisers, destroyers, and submarines.  At the heart of the mission was a team of eight soldiers armed with chainsaws! The rest of the forces were providing support for this small team of men whose mission was…to cut down a single poplar tree.

This requires some explaining.

On July 27, 1953 an armistice agreement effectively ended the Korean War by creating a buffer zone 4 km (2.5 mi) wide which runs 250 kilometers (160 miles) across the entire Korean peninsula.  Although huge armies wait on either side, the Demilitarized Zone itself remains a no-man’s land, deadly for humans to tread upon (and, consequently, one of the most pristine temperate forests on Earth).  Only a tiny portion of the DMZ is designated as a Joint Security Area (JSA) where people can go. Located near what used to be the village of Panmunjon, the JSA serves as a sort of neutral meeting place, where North Korean forces meet face to face with forces from the United Nations Command. Numerous military and diplomatic negotiations have taken place at the JSA (although the North Koreans abandoned all meetings in 1991 over a perceived slight), however, in the years since the armistice, the area has also been the sight of many kidnappings, assaults, and killings as the hermit kingdom repeatedly tests its boundaries like a dangerous animal behind an electric fence.

A photograph of the actual confrontation--well, that certainly clears everything up!

A photograph of the actual confrontation–well, that certainly clears everything up!

In the mid-seventies, American and South Korean forces near the JSA had a problem: a leafy poplar tree blocked the view from one guardhouse to another.  North Korean commandos exploited this weakness to attack the isolated guardhouse more than once.  On August 18, 1976, a team of American and South Korean soldiers was duly dispatched to trim the tree.  Unfortunately a bellicose team of North Korean soldiers intercepted the landscaping team and precipitated a fight.  The North Korean officer stated that the poplar had been planted and nourished by Kim Il-Sung and was therefore sacrosanct.  In the ensuing melee, two American officers were killed with axes and clubs.  The perfidious North Koreans rushed to the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations, and presented the incident as an American attack.  With support from Cuba, the members of the conference passed a resolution condemning the provocation and demanding a withdrawal of US and UN forces from the Korean peninsula.

Carrier USS Midway (CVA 41) is flanked by destroyer USS Picking (DD 685) on the left, and guided missile destroyer USS Preble (DLG 15) (from the US Navy Museum website)

Carrier USS Midway (CVA 41) is flanked by destroyer USS Picking (DD 685) on the left, and guided missile destroyer USS Preble (DLG 15) (from the US Navy Museum website)

Gerald Ford decided the incident had to be answered in a way which asserted overwhelming force yet precluded further escalation.  Hence, Operation Paul Bunyan was put together to chop down the tree under the rubric of massive armed force.   Heavily armed infantry, artillery, and air assault forces were moved into supporting positions as was the Midway carrier group.  The armed convoy cut down the tree (in 42 minutes) and left the 6 meter (20 foot) stump remaining.  They also cleared away two North Korean barricades.

A section of the poplar stump, saved for posterity

A section of the poplar stump, saved for posterity

Response to Operation Paul Bunyan was swift an unexpected:  Kim Il-sung sent a message to United Nations Command expressing regret at the incident. North Korea’s provocative actions along the border were subsequently muted down (although, obviously, not forever).  In 1987, the stump was cut down, but a stone monument to the fallen American officers was erected in its place.

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I would like to interrupt the parade of anteaters, crowns, demons, and obscure colors for a brief but important political polemic.  It seems likely that the Federal budget sequester will take place tonight and that is very bad news.

As almost everyone now knows, this artificial crisis was created as an attempt to make America’s hostile and antithetical political parties work together to cut spending and balance the budget.  Unsurprisingly creating (another) arbitrary deadline failed miserably to accomplish this task–so unstructured cuts will hit big parts of the Federal budget.  Defense spending is slated to be cut by 13% and the rest of domestic spending will be trimmed by 9%.  The sequester will not touch entitlements like Medicare and Social Security (which make up the majority of the budget), because doing so would be political suicide for national politicians.

Take this and apply it randomly to existing programs.

Take this and apply it randomly to existing programs.

Some people are ok with this, and argue that the Federal budget is out of control and needs to be reined in by some means.  Nine percent and thirteen percent are not big numbers.  The American military is still the largest in the world…etc…etc… This is the wrong way to think.  As this article outlines, many of the budget cuts insidiously strike at our research budget which will direly impact the future not just of the United States but also of the other nations (and maybe the ecosystems) of the entire world.

The sequester will hurt basic science research.  Greedy Wall Street moguls will be just fine and (most likely) people at the bottom of the economic scale will be ok too, but, in twenty years humankind won’t have nanotechnology, space elevators, immortality potions, or whatever incredible thing today’s research was meant to foster.

Private companies, the Chinese, James Bond villain billionaires…all other entities capable of fundamental research are small potatoes (other than universities—which receive much of their science money from the government).  The US Government is the world’s largest source of funding of basic research money…by a lot.

Fundamental research is the one thing America is good at (well maybe we can still make pizzas, scammy software, and dumb action movies, but we can talk about that another day) and that’s okay because research is the most important thing.  Nations do not become superpowers because of indomitable spirit or cool national symbols, but because of engineering, science, and innovation. Research is the critical underpinning of economic, military, and cultural greatness.  It is also fundamental to humankind’s quest to understand and manipulate the universe (before it kills us and everything we care about).  Social security does nothing to further that objective!

Canceled due to budget cuts.

Canceled due to budget cuts.

The sequester cuts resemble a farm plan which leaves out the seed corn.  And what is the point of even running a farm then?   So, politicians, go ahead and make cuts to the budget.  Raise taxes even.  National leaders, do what you have to do, but please don’t cut the most important part of the budget because it is most abstract and lacks special interest lobbyists.  That is stupid…and it is what we are doing by default.

Contraception Experts before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

Today I am uncharacteristically writing about a current social issue in American politics–the controversy over U.S. Health and Human Services mandate on contraceptive coverage which has erupted over the course of the last fortnight.

For anybody reading this from the remote future (which will be next week, considering our 24 hour news cycle), the dispute can be summarized as follows.  The current presidential administration attempted to compel religious (particularly Catholic) schools, hospitals, and charities in the United States to provide health insurance which covers contraception for their employees.  These institutions balked at this demand, claiming that the president was trampling on their freedom of religion (Catholics authorities indeed have a well-documented history of objecting to people being able to make health choices and moral decisions for themselves).  Since it is an election year, the president seems to have backed down.

Hi! I can still intrude in American politics!

There has been a great deal written about this from different political/moral/religious perspectives and it is already the subject of much posturing and political theater. Leaving aside the obvious boon which effective contraception provides for individuals and for society (and the fact that the vast majority of American women, whatever their religion, use some form of contraception), I don’t intend to write about the dust-up per se.  If the Catholic Church wishes to force women back to a benighted era of limited reproductive freedom, well, they can make that their (abusive and wrong-headed) position [although the Church has argued that these hospitals, charities, and schools are not solely religious whenever questions of public funding and government assistance have arisen].  There are ways around it, and it doesn’t seem like a long-term winning strategy.

I am troubled instead by the implicit assumptions about health insurance and healthcare which are revealed by this controversy.

The religious (and quasi-religious) organizations claim to be angry because they are forced to pay for a service which is against their conscience.  This implies that they are paying for the service!  Whatever employers claim, health insurance is really ultimately paid for by employees.  It is part of compensation. This is one of the reasons that wages have stagnated in the United States for such a long time. Our salaries are not rising because our health care costs are going up. There is a strong incentive not to leave a job which provides health insurance because an employee can not be guaranteed to find coverage elsewhere, particularly if that employee has a pre-existing condition or works in a field with limited employment options (which is pretty much every field).  Ideally all employees adversely affected by the Church’s paternalistic overreach would quit and move to new jobs.  Raise your hand if you think that is likely or even possible.

Health costs are rising precipitously while health outcomes are getting worse.  People are understandably afraid to leave their jobs in search of better options or to start businesses of their own.  The stagnation of job mobility is hurting the American economy and society as a whole.

The reason that people should be mad is not because health insurance allows Catholic institutions coercive control over the lives of people who work for them.  People should be angry because the structure of health care in this country gives all large employers an undue hold on the people who work for them.  Americans are becoming vassals of their employers thanks to perverse incentives of a broken healthcare system.

I have no answers but here's some bland clipart.

A few weeks ago Ferrebeekeeper featured an introductory post concerning the power which population demographics exert over the affairs of people and nations.  I would like to follow up on those ideas with a post concerning demographic cohorts in the United States (and in Western Europe, where history and shared culture have produced similar chronological categories).  A cohort consists of a group of contemporaries, born together in a 15-25 year period, who have shared certain coming-of-age experiences and crises together. According to conventional thinking there are seven age-based cohorts still marching in the great parade of life here in the western democracies:

  1. The Lost Generation (born 1883 to 1900): Honestly only a few last representatives of the World War I generation remain alive, and they are now so old as to seem fabulously unbelievable–like unicorns or manticores. They earned their name in a horrible way.  A whole generation of young men were conscripted to fight in the trenches of France–and they never came back from the mud beneath the big guns. Even in America, which entered the war late, a huge part of this generation was lost to Spanish flu. The last man to fight in the trenches died earlier this year.  Soon everyone who ever lived in the shadow of the monstrous debacle that was World War I will be dead and the generation will truly be lost–but for now a few ancient grandmothers still survive. 
  2. The Greatest Generation (born 1901 to 1924): This generation also came by its name through fighting in a World War.  The abject awfulness of the Nazi and Japanese war machines gave Allied soldiers a moral clarity and purpose which other generations have lacked. Also this generation first mastered the atom, first ventured into space, and then presided over a time of unprecedented plenty and economic success.
  3. The Silent Generation (born 1924-1945): The oldest members of the Silent Generation participated in World War II along with the greatest generation and now pretend to be part of that cohort, but largely this was the generation slightly too young to go to war.  They grew up in the depression–and they carry some of the hardheaded skinflint pragmatism of that time with them always.
  4. The Baby Boom (born 1945-1965): When the Second World War was won, the world lay in smoking ruins–except for America which was at the peak of its productive capacity.  The brave soldiers came home, started businesses, and married the strong capable women working in the hospitals and factories.  Then together they engendered a huge demographic bulge of newborns. The demographic weight of the boomers (combined with a certain self-absorbed focus on their special destiny) has put them much in the center of national affairs. They were the hippy generation who protested during the summer of love.  They were the hard-charging yuppies of the eighties.  They are the bulk of the government now.  However the boomers are beginning to retire and this massive flux is going to upend everything in our nation.
  5. Generation X (born 1965-1981): Also called the thirteenth generation, this is my generation. We were born in the post-sixties hangover, when recession and malaise stalked the nation and then we came of age in the booming eighties and nineties as communication technology underwent unprecedented breakthroughs (and brought an unprecedented boom in productivity). My generation has always seemed a bit lost—a rain shadow cast by the demographic mountain of baby boomers.  The conventional wisdom is that generation x is lackadaisical, cynical, and apathetic. We certainly do not have any moon landings or atomic bombs to our credit but we did have a hand in creating the new information age.  Also our entire generational ethos has not been finalized. Our greatest masterpieces have not yet been painted.
  6. The Millennial Generation (born 1981-2002): This group is also known as the shadow boom or mini-boom because they are the children of baby boomers (and therefor have their own demographic power). The majority of our active duty service members are from this generation.  They grew up surrounded by pagers, faxes, emails, and texts and they have the mentality to make sense of our networked world. When I was visiting my alma-mater a few years ago, I noticed that the students looked a lot happier and better-dressed than they did when I was a student.  The bars and bathrooms were not covered in graffiti and everyone’s hair was neat.  I think this generation really does have a different and more optimistic mentality then the two preceding it.  Coming into the workforce during a crippling recession might jar the polite businesslike smiles of the millennial generation a bit, but based on their battlefield aplomb and their personal rectitude, we can expect great things.
  7. The New As-Yet-Unnamed Generation (2002-present): No golden-tongued wag has yet given a name to the generation who are currently children.  Whenever I see this group featured in the mainstream media, it seems to be a pejorative article about how video games and environmental mercury are making them dull, but on an anecdotal level I have not found this to be true at all.  The children I have met have all the grace, swiftness, brilliance, and innocence of children.  They are bright and shiny as new-struck coins and I think it is appropriate that nobody has given them a name yet.

Of this list, I obviously have a preference for the first two generations and the last two generations. The lost generation and the greatest generation were badasses who came of age killing Germans with bayonets while building superweapons at home.  The two most recent generations are good-looking kids who are polite, hard-working, socially conscious, and still possess nimble minds. Naysayers who complain about the bad pop music and bad attitudes of “kids these days” are out-of-touch curmudgeons who are not paying close attention to reality [well, popular music actually is pretty bad—ed.].  The millennials are alright and the unnamed generation are better than alright—they are adorable kids who could grow up to be anything.

Sadly, the three generations in the middle—the generations who are at their economic peak and are running the country–are a greedy, fumbling mess.  It is popular to blame Chinese manufacturers, world trade, and globalization for the current economic turmoil, but there is a simpler reason for these bad times.  The inability of government to work and the excesses of our financial sector reflect a deeper division in our society. A huge number of Americans are beginning to retire, and, as large swaths of the population change from productive members of society to retired (but politically active and materially successful) seniors, the nation’s economic timbre is sure to be diminished.

A quick look at the halls of congress or the directorship of large companies will reveal that the silent generation and the baby boomers may be retiring, but they have not given up the true reigns of authority. The great political movements of the past few years—the tea party and the “occupy Wall Street” protests snap into a much sharper focus if you look at the age of the respective participants.  Wrestling control of the faltering nation from the hands of hard-bitten silent generation plutocrats and from a huge number of retiring boomers (who have always had things their way) falls to the indolent hands of generation x—people who would rather write blogs or paint weird paintings.  I, for one, am looking forward to when the millennial generation can also rise to the halls of power. I also worry that demographic stalemate might mean we have to wait until then to enjoy a united and prosperous nation.

The principle national symbols for the United States of America are the stars and stripes of old glory and our national animal, the irascible and awesome bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)–but this was not always so. Our search for national icons initially took us in different directions.  To celebrate the upcoming Fourth of July, I would like to write about some of these early national symbols.  Some of our founding fathers thought like me, and we could have had a tree, a poisonous serpent, or a turkey!

Throughout the eighteenth century, New England merchant vessels flew a pine tree standard (which showed a pine tree on a white background).  This long-standing imagery fit together well with the sons of liberty movement whose members adopted the elm tree under which they first convened as an emblem.  The early American navy from the New England area thus flew tree flags with the words “An Appeal to Heaven” or “An Appeal to God.”  There was a drawback, trees, though very stately, do not make for immense dynamism.  the nation needed a livelier national emblem, preferably an animal.

The Gadsden Flag

Hence, an even more popular early American flag was the famous/infamous Gadsden flag which showed a rattlesnake coiled up and ready to strike on a yellow background.   Despite the fact that it is the same yellow as signs used for check cashing establishments and liquor stores with lots of bulletproof glass, I really like the Gadsden flag.  That rattlesnake is not kidding around.  It is unclear whether she is a timber rattler, Crotalus horridus, or an eastern diamondback, Crotalus adamanteus (which seems more likely, since the flag’s champion, Christopher Gadsden was a congressman from South Carolina) but whatever the case she is a beautiful snake and she is posed very evocatively. The rattlesnake had been an American emblem for a long time. An early cartoon shows how the colonies must join together or risk being like a chopped up snake.  Rattlesnakes carried a powerful fascination for people of the time, in fact, Benjamin Franklin was a huge fan of rattlesnakes and he wrote about them with perfervid admiration.  Here’s an excerpt from an essay he wrote about rattlers in 1775:

I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?

Franklin did not succeed in making the rattlesnake the national emblem but the rattlesnake still remain a national emblem.  In fact today the rattlesnake-themed first navy jack is the flag flown by active duty United States Warships.  The timber rattlesnake is also the official state reptile of my home state, West Virginia.

The First Navy Jack Flying on the USS Kitty Hawk

After independence was declared, congress argued for six years about the image which would adorn the great seal.  In June 20, 1782, they finally chose the eagle, which became the official national bird five years later.  Franklin famously did not care for the eagle.  Smarting from the rejection of the rattlesnake, he penned a sarcastic response to the bald eagle seal (which other detractors claimed looked like a turkey):

For my own part I wish the Eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…

I am on this account not displeased that the figure is not known as a Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.

This is a grim assassination of the eagle’s character. I think Ben may have been a little too hard on bald eagles which can be fearsome hunters and are certainly magnificent animals, but I do love the idea of a turkey as the national bird and now wish he had pushed harder.   on this sight we have already showed that they are brave, freedom-loving fowl (and capable of virgin birth to boot).

Despite my love of turkeys, I think the national animal needs to be truly magnificent and intimidating.  Therefore, for my own part, I think we should have chosen the killer whale as a national emblem.  These creatures live in all of the world’s oceans and range from pole to pole.  Since they are really giant dolphins, they possess tremendous acute intelligence. They live a long time and form close family bonds, however their strength and ferocity are unparalleled in the animal kingdom (also we wouldn’t be duplicating the Romans who used eagles as their battle standards).

Orcinus orca

Perhaps the truest manifestation of patriotism is to choose all of the above.  There is no reason the eagle can’t share glory with rattlesnakes, trees, and orcas!  It suits the national character to have all sorts of magnificent creatures under one big crazy tent [editor’s note: no, no, no…do not put these animals together in a big tent]. On that note, I hope you enjoy Independence Day. Drink whiskey play with fireworks and pet an eagle to show you love America! [editor’s note: Do not play with fireworks while drinking whiskey. Do not pet eagles!]  Happy Fourth!

Do not pet this animal.

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