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Month: May 2023

Some Gave All

Some Gave All

This Memorial Day, I’d like to take a moment to honor the many, many Americans who have lost their lives to mass shootings over the years.

Does it make sense to think of the victims of domestic mass shootings as casualties of war? Well, it might, depending on how you define “war.” Let me make an argument.

In the aftermath of the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was a proctacted period of low-level violence perpetrated by enemies of the U.S. regime who were trying to thwart its efforts to maintain order. I mean “low-level” in contrast to the “shock and awe” that had just come before, when U.S. forces admitted themselves into the country. The long insurgency that followed the invasion was the “mission not accomplished” phase of the Iraq War, and became known as “post-conflict stabilization” in the prominent strategic theories of the time, which imagined the U.S. toppling evil dictatorships and spreading democracy around the globe. Those were the heady “sole superpower” days when neoconservatives dominated U.S. foreign policy.

This gist of these theories was that governments which controlled powerful militaries needed to become adept at fighting much more poorly equipped enemies who used “asymmetric warfare,” which used to simply be called guerilla warfare. Great Power war was out, because of U.S. hegemony and/or strategic nuclear weapons, but now there were these new “small wars” where the battlefield wasn’t strictly defined and encompassed civilian spaces. “Superempowered individuals” exploited open networks to wreak havoc on civilians and undermine the authority of governments, as happened in the U.S. in the September 11 terrorist attacks, and then happened over and over again in Baghdad, outside of the “green zone” where the occupying forces maintained their headquarters.

In those days there was this sense that such violence and instability were only a problem “over there,” which we lucky First World Americans witnessed from a distance, except in rare moments such as 9/11. Somehow, terrorist attacks on our nation were the result of malcontents who hated our freedom, which is why we were obligated to go deal with them on their territory. This poem by Alicia Ostriker expresses the sentiment brilliantly.

The Window, at the Moment of Flame

And all this while I have been playing with toys
A toy power station a toy automobile a house of blocks

And all this while far off in other lands
Thousands and thousands, millions and millions—

You know—you see the pictures
Women carrying their bony infants

Men sobbing over graves
Buildings sculpted by explosion

Earth wasted bare and rotten—
And all this while I have been shopping, I have

Been let us say free
And do they hate me for it

Do they hate me

-Alicia Ostriker

We gave up on all that, and now it seems that our own government is suffering from stability issues right here at home. The partisan divide is so deep that many Americans fear there could be another civil war. We almost didn’t have a successful transition of power in the last Presdiential election.

After January 6, I wrote a blog post suggesting that the United States now faced the thorny problems of small wars and post-conflict stabilization on the domestic front. National guardsmen holding down the Capitol building just looked so much like there was a green zone in Washington, D.C. itself.

What does this have to do with mass shootings? Mass shooters have many motivations, sometimes completely inscrutable, sometimes plainly laid out in manifestos or evident from their background and social media posts. Undeniably, one motivation is hatred and anger stirred up by interactions in online networks and by the spreading of divisive messages and misinformation.

Mass shooters, even teenaged ones, also have ready access to powerful firearms, despite majority support for stricter gun control. This is because we do not have a functional democracy, in which the majority viewpoint can prevail in law.

This takes me to another strategic theory, the concept of a “hybrid war,” which combines conventional military means with cyberwarfare and with social network attacks spreading “fake news,” inciting “stochastic terrorism,” and interfering with democratic elections. This is a kind of warfare favored by Russia; in fact, Putin’s infamous Wagner Group of mercenaries is headed by the same guy who ran the Internet Research Agency that interfered with the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. It’s not really a stretch to say that the U.S. has been in a hybrid war with Russia (with Ukraine as a proxy) since the late 2010s.

In this “informational market state” in which we live (pardon me for dredging up more theories), security threats come primarily from individuals exploiting open networks. Clearly, young men who are radicalized on the Internet and can easily acquire an AR-15 at the corner gun shop are just such individuals. So long as government remains paralyzed and individual rights are triumphant, the threat of mass shootings will remain.

To whatever extent these factors are tied up in a global market state conflict pitting alternate ideological camps against one another, you could say we are in a state of war. Call it World War III, the hybrid version. Call it Cold Civil War II. It hardly matters. Perhaps it makes more sense simply to consider that, through our choices, we have made our society into an active war zone. And so the victims of mass shootings are casualties of war.

So let us pause on this Memorial Day and reflect on the lives of the many Americans who have been gunned down going about their daily business, as our government flounders, unable to gain any traction on control over access to deadly weapons, even as firearms have now become the leading cause of death for children. Let us remember their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of the many more schoolchildren, shoppers, concertgoers, church and synagogue attendees, and other ordinary men, women and children, going about their ordinary business, who will give their lives in the years to come. They are paying the price of freedom.

I conclude this post with a thougthful poem by the late Muriel Rukeyser.

Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars)

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

-Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)
R.I.P Sweet Princess Sashimi, the Light of Our Lives

R.I.P Sweet Princess Sashimi, the Light of Our Lives

Our sweet sunshine kitty, Princess Sashimi McCulloch, reached her last midnight. It was sad to see her soul leave her body, where she struggled so hard to stay these past weeks. I’m glad her suffering is over, but I will miss her so very much. She was the most perfect of all cats, and the beating heart of our household.

She was such an integral part of our daily lives, especially since the pandemic began and I moved in with her family, that it will be hard to get along without her. It won’t be the same after this.

She used to fuss in the evenings, to get everyone together for TV time. It was her favorite time, I believe – when the whole family was in the living room, including Gavin who lives next door, and she would sleep contentedly on the reclining couch at Aileen’s feet while we sat mesmerized by the flashing box. She did not approve of us scattering about with our own agendas, especially if it meant she was alone in the house. The end of lockdown may have been a blow for her.

Sashimi came into Aileen’s life as a Mother’s Day gift from the Universe. Aileen was wanting a cat in her life, since her previous cat had recently died. On Mother’s Day 2010, while she was rehearsing at her theater, there was a thump at the door. Someone left a box there, which contained two kittens. One of them was badly hurt, with a broken hip and, as it turned out, a dead tail.

The vet recommended putting her down, but Aileen refused. With her son Tiernan’s help she nursed the kitten back to health. Her tail fell off, and for her whole life Sashimi had no tail, and a bit of a crooked back which gave her an awkward gait. She had a little bald patch on her lower back too. She was so beautiful and so precious.

She outlived her brother, who died around 2015 from a perforated stomach. Once I moved to Pennsylvania in 2018, and then into Aileen’s house in 2020, Sashimi became much more a part of my everyday life. She would keep Tiernan company while he did his schoolwork, and once Aileen started leaving for work again, Sashimi would rush to greet her at the door every day when she came home.

She had a way of requesting affection where she would go to the floor mat in front of the door and scratch it. If she did that, it meant she wanted to be petted. It was a habit Aileen had trained into her using a scratching post when she was a kitten. She also had this super-adorable thing she did where she would fall to her side to be stroked and petted. We called it “flumphing” when she did it. She would even let you rub her tummy.

At the end of the day she needed everyone upstairs before she would come up too. When I was the only one still up, puttering with last minute chores, she would come downstairs and pace about until I finally went up to the bedroom where I belonged. She would sit at the top of the stairs like a sphinx, guarding us. In the morning, she would be back downstairs to supervise the making of the coffee and request her cream. It was like she ran the household.

She was pure love and I know it was love that kept her with us for as long as she could manage after her cancer diagnosis. Aileen asked her to please stay at least until Mother’s Day, her foundling day. It was a struggle and it was so sad to watch her grow weak as she lost her ability to eat. When she managed a flumph on occasion it was a thrill for the family, a victory for life. She was so brave and so dignified to the end.

On her last day, the Monday after Mother’s Day, she could barely move, but she held out until Aileen came home from tech, and then let Aileen hold her on the couch, her frail body wrapped in a blanket. Aileen set her down in her usual spot and we all dozed with the TV on, keeping vigil. Sashimi had held out until she was in her favorite place, one last time. Shortly after midnight, she let go.

Goodbye, sweet Princess, and until we meet again, I will miss you so very, very much, and the huge service you did to our family, providing its emotional core.

Very Excited About Our Tulips This Year

Very Excited About Our Tulips This Year

In front of our house there is a little round planter area which is full of tulip bulbs. They’ve done really well this year, as you can see from the picture to the right. They’ve created this lovely riot of pink blooms, with some red thrown in for highlight, which you can admire every time you step out front.

They reminded me of this book I read a while back, called Tulipomania, about the infamous tulip bulb market bubble in the Netherlands in the 17th century. The book starts with a history of the tulip, which originated in the steppes of Central Asia, coming to Europe via the Ottoman Empire. It’s a very hardy plant, able to tolerate extreme cold and dry weather. We certainly don’t put any effort into caring for ours; it’s like they just obligingly come up every spring to give us a show.

As for the tulip mania of the 1630s, well, it’s possibly the best known example of a market bubble in economic history, though there have certainly been others. As the book explains, a market bubble occurs when a good is artificially priced much higher than its actual worth. Supposedly, according to economic theorists, markets will naturally adjust prices based on supply and demand. These theorists are assuming that people behave rationally, and pay for stuff based on its worth to them, relative to other options. However, it might not be correct to assume that people are always rational, as a survey of history will reveal.

A rare tulip of the sort that set off tulip mania.

The story of tulip mania is an interesting one. It seems that before the bubble, and after it as well, there was a market for rare bulbs that produce exquisitely beautiful, multicolored tulips. The variegated patterns on these flowers are the result of a virus, which can be preserved in a bulb when it is propagated by division. So it was possible, though very difficult, to breed these rare tulips, and tulip connoisseurs were very interested in acquiring these bulbs; hence their high prices. They were like luxury tulips.

Somehow, when the general public got wind of how much these bulbs were selling for, they decided they wanted in on the racket. Of course, they couldn’t all buy these rare bulbs, since by definition there aren’t many of a rare thing, so they just bid up the prices of the common tulip bulbs. You know, the boring red and yellow and purple ones that you can see filling fields in the Netherlands if you do a quick image search. These shouldn’t be worth a whole lot of money; they’re a basic commodity, like potatoes. But somehow the Dutch masses convinced themselves they were all tulip bulb brokers and these common items soared in price. It was a classic case of “irrational exuberance.”

The bubble didn’t last too long, because the fundamental value of the ordinary tulip varieties simply did not justify the high prices. That’s what makes an asset price bubble a bubble; sooner or later the exuberance wears off, and the holders of the asset who bought it for its inflated price can’t offload it for a profit. Demand for the asset drops sharply, and pop! goes the bubble. The asset owners are stuck “holding the bag,” as they say. They get wiped out.

What stands out about tulip mania is how plainly it is an example of a price bubble, since it involves a basic commodity, and the price inflation was so disproportionate to what one would think was a rational expectation. I mean, surely the farmers who were selling their bulbs at these inflated prices knew they were ripping off the speculators, right? Were they being immoral? Arguably, they were being rational – any given farmer would know that if they didn’t sell their bulbs to someone willing to pay so much, some other farmer would. Any given speculator knew that if they didn’t buy and flip some bulbs, some other speculator would, and reap the profits. It was a case of herd psychology, everyone just playing along with the madness.

A similar herd psychology is at work in the kinds of bubbles that most commonly affect our lives, which are in the stock market, such as the dot-com bubble, or in real estate, such as the 2000s housing bubble. When credit is easy and exuberance is high, everyone just kind of goes along with the trend of rising valuations and carefree spending. No one wants to spoil the party. If you’ve seen the movie The Big Short, you know that the guys who saw that the housing bubble was going to burst were going against conventional thought. When the bubble did burst, it was hard to pin the blame on anyone. I mean, you could single out obvious actors, like the credit rating agencies in the case of the 2000s housing bubble, but can you prove they were guilty of fraud, and not just of herd mentality? No, you can’t.

I think this kind of mania is possible because, ultimately, money and the value of stuff is a fiction in our collective heads. If we all agree that a digital coin is worth ten thousand bucks, that’s what it’s worth. If later on we all agree that it’s worth a hundred bucks, it becomes worth that much, and too bad for you if that’s all you’re invested in. We could even all agree that the tulip bulbs in our front yard are worth ten thousand bucks apiece! Just venmo me and they’re yours.