Monday, January 31, 2011


We happened to stop and rest in a small shadowed plaza, where park benches lay scattered about and weird modern sculptures splayed against the sky and fountains -- so much prettier -- splashed. The tall buildings loomed about us. It was a hot day.

While we sat among the crowds, five or six young black kids all dressed in jeans and plain white t-shirts came racing around a corner and sprinted down a corridor which led like a small canyon off the plaza. They disappeared up some wide steps.

All this time, a street performer had been setting up on the curb nearby. He was a black man wearing sweat pants and a shirt. We watched him put out a big boom box and a drum.

He took off his sweats. Underneath he wore a skin-tight, multicolored spandex bodysuit. He leaned over, switched on the boom box, and stood up on the drum as if it were a stage. His music blared, raspy, something funky and nondescript.

A uniformed cop on a bicycle rode slowly past him, up on the sidewalk. The performer said nothing but pointed gracefully in the direction the boys had run. The cop rode that way, and the performer began. He contorted himself, pulled a narrow plastic hoop over his body, balanced remarkably. I noticed there was a clear plexiglass box on the ground beside him, the kind contortionists fold themselves into on t.v.

While he stood on his drum, acting, playing to the crowd, he also watched where the cop had gone and where the boys had gone. He stood handstands while watching. Then one of the boys came back, the youngest and smallest. He settled in quietly among the crowd. The performer did not take his eyes off him.

I hissed in Aunt Laurie's ear that I thought the street dancer was an undercover cop. She gave me that arched-eyebrow glare, which usually means “Really? How interesting, you’re so wrong.” After a few minutes more, she was ready to move on.

We left. The man was still balancing and contorting and his music still pumped and thundered as we made to cross the street beside him. I was tempted to compliment him quietly on the fine job, but I thought this might blow his cover. On the other hand, I don’t see how the young kid who came back -- was sent back -- could not have known full well what he was.

Monday, January 24, 2011

"So this is how liberty dies" -- by resumé

Is it "amid thunderous applause," as Padme sadly says in one of the Star Wars movies? Maybe, although poor George Lucas was more prescient than he knew. Trying to savage George Bush in that film, we may be sure the erstwhile freedom-loving director subsequently felt not the slightest distress at the thunderous applause that in a few years elected Barack Obama to office.

No, it's not necessarily the applause that marks the event. It might instead be the fact that liberty dies when one or two people, who don't care much about freedom or any other abstractions, nevertheless need to make a political career out of getting noticed for doing something. Someday, I do believe historians will look back marveling that the prime characteristic of our era was that we were all busy compiling our resumés. Think of the idiotic things we do, think of the time we are compelled to waste, because we, or someone in authority just above us who wants to be noticed and promoted, is compiling a resumé. The staff training days, the workshops, the break-out sessions, the role-playing, because the director wants to be able to boast "I implemented staff training days with break out sessions and role playing" when she writes her next grant. Think of the smarmily-acronymed drug and gang "resistance" programs delivered to bored, embarrassed students in the public schools, because the school principal wants to be able to boast likewise when he goes for his Ph.D., and the nice young police officer in charge of the program wants to be able to say he sponsored D.A.R.E.  and G.R.E.A.T. when he runs for county sheriff in fifteen years ... have you ever seen thirteen-year- olds required to dance, in front of an audience, to the song "D! -- I won't do drugs! A! -- I won't have an attitude ...."    

Then there are small-time politicians who latch on to an issue, which itself has no value except that it erodes a little bit of freedom from people's daily lives, because the issue seems to have "legs" and because they, the small time politicians, want to become big time, or at least stay employed as politicians. Have you read the excellent cover article in the latest Weekly Standard, titled "Another triumph for the greens (why your dishwasher doesn't work anymore)"? 

In sum, Jonathan V. Last's article tells us how it happened that dishwasher detergents, which used to contain about 8% phosphorus -- this is the chemical that makes the detergents clean well -- now contain 0.5% and don't clean nearly as well. And we none of us have any choice but to buy them. The companies that make Cascade, Finish, and Electrasol all agreed to remove those useful phospates from their formulas as of last summer, because three politicians in Spokane, Washington, wanted them banned. Phosphates are blamed, rightly or wrongly -- note: rightly or wrongly -- for polluting fresh water and eventually killing fish, in the Spokane river specifically. The two meatiest paragraphs in the article follow:

It was in the midst of Spokane’s phosphorus-reduction mania that two politicians got the idea to ban dishwasher detergents containing phosphates. In April 2005, one of Spokane’s state representatives, Democrat Timm Ormsby, proposed a bill requiring that any dish detergent sold or distributed in the state contain less than 0.5 percent phosphorus. At the time, Ormsby didn’t think the bill had much of a chance. “I thought we were up against a pretty steep challenge,” he says, “given that other states had tried and failed.” The bill sat stewing until, a few months later, Spokane County commissioner Todd Mielke, a Republican, proposed a phosphate-detergent ban for the county.

Mielke, who served for five years in the state legislature before becoming a corporate lobbyist, was widely respected by Washington Republicans. When he joined forces with Ormsby, support for the phosphate ban took off in the house. It passed by a vote of 78 to 19 with such strong bipartisan support that both the speaker and the minority leader voted for it. The legislative strength of the bill surprised Lisa Brown, the Democratic majority leader in the state senate, who quickly became engaged. She knew a winner when she saw one. And it didn’t hurt that she, too, hailed from Spokane. With Brown muscling it along, the bill passed in the senate just two weeks later, 41 to 7.

Did both men, and the woman, have a genuine passion for reducing phosphates in their hometown's river, or a passion for fish, or nature, or only a passion -- and more and more I believe it is the ruling human one -- for telling their fellow beings what to do? Or were they just interested in improving their resumés? The result has been not only that good dishwasher detergents were banned in Washington state, but that the detergent manufacturers "threw in the towel" and decided to make all their products 0.5% phosphorus, rather than manufacture two sets of soaps, one for sale in Washington and one for the rest of the country. They recognized that there is no fighting Gaia.

And then, consider Lisa Brown. She, too, seems to be building her resumé.

Last January the Washington state legislature took up a proposal to ban phosphates from residential lawn fertilizers. It passed in the senate, but stalled in the house. The bill, which would have required neighbors to inform on one another, was sponsored by the Democratic majority leader, Lisa Brown [emphasis added].

Perhaps it's inevitable that democratic government becomes depraved. Eventually, there is nothing for candidates to promise, and nothing for elected officials to do, except to create more and more laws. At least olden-time aristocracies devoted a good part of their year to hunting, wenching, and court intrigue, and so left Jack Sprat alone to buy the dishwasher detergent he liked. Yet, note how people in un-democratic regimes walk through fire to vote.

Erasmus declared Folly the daughter of Plutus, Riches, and has Folly describe her father as the god "according to whose pleasure war, peace, empire, counsels, judgments, assemblies, wedlocks, bargains, leagues, laws, arts, all things light or serious -- I want breath -- in short, all the public and private business of mankind is governed ... this is my father and in him I glory."  If Folly in turn marries Democracy, it seems the children of the pair turn out to be the best and the brightest who like to outlaw things, and thus meddle and destroy in their own incremental way. They end up writing a lot of resumés.

One more thought, to be filed under the heading "incremental meddling." Eventually, the phosphate-banning, fish-loving environmental mania is going to come up against the grand topic of public health. Towards the end of the Weekly Standard article Jonathan Last writes,

The anti-phosphorus lobby began by agitating against phosphates in laundry detergent. In the early 1990s they were banned, though an exception was made for dish detergents. Now phosphates are banned in dish detergents, too, though these bans make an exception for commercial dish detergents, which still contain phosphates. Surely they are next in line for improvement.

"Next in line" are commercial detergents. What this means is that in time people who want to be noticed for having gotten something done are going to decide that it's not very important whether or not restaurant (or hospital?) dishes are clean. They also don't care if Jack Sprat actually wastes more water and more electricity hand-washing or double-dishwashing his dishes, as long as he's not using what they want to boast in their resumes about having banned. Will restaurant patrons complain about dirty plates and glasses? What of the public health inspectors, visiting kitchens and store rooms and also compiling resumés?

Hospitals, I suspect, will become the battleground where environmentalism makes its stand. Being an environmentalist has to be a function of youth and health. Recycle as you like, carpool, plant a tree on Earth Day, think green thoughts, smile at nature and love Gaia as you please, -- but wait till the day when you have to enter a hospital. The things those doctors and nurses use once and then throw away will absolutely astonish you. And when it's your turn to benefit from their ministrations, you will want them to go one doing exactly that, no matter how many trees you've planted on Earth day or how many canvas bags you righteously lug to the grocery store. You will want them using and hygienically throwing away the exam gloves, the needles, the syringes, the cotton swabs, the plastic sheaths for ear scopes and thermometers, the plastic I.V. lines and drip bags, the plastic bed protectors and the hand sanitizers and the face masks and the little cups for your pills. All this is only what you see in the patient's room, where things are relatively tidy and unshocking. God knows what is used up and thrown away in operating rooms or labs, and I don't mean obvious biohazards. When it comes to our lives and our health, we don't care what goes into the landfill or flushes into the ocean. Perhaps a race memory of filth and disease is still that strong in us. In the hospital we say: keep me clean and keep me alive.

For the moment, anyway. Can the best and brightest, people like Ormsby, Mielke, and Brown, change that? Will your doctor be required to share needles for the sake of the environment? It seems impossible, but up until last July it seemed impossible that free citizens would not be permitted to buy a good dishwasher detergent. It seems impossible that we shall all be forbidden to buy lightbulbs as of 2014, but lo, the law exists. (You can stock up, if you don't mind pretending you live in the old Soviet Union whose peoples' hoarding habits we used to rather pity.) When it comes to the hospitals, then we will see what passions the religion of Gaia really compels. Or perhaps there's a greater and subtler force at work, and it's just our attachment to the incremental folly of resumé writing. Either way, I imagine the daughter of Riches somewhere in heaven, laughing, deliciously.      

Monday, January 10, 2011


Look closely, and you'll spot him waving from the distant clouds. From a psalter belonging to King Henry VIII; scanned from the book Henry VIII and his Court, by Neville Williams (1971).

We know we mustn't think of Almighty God as an old man in heaven, crowned and robed, yet how often the image crops up -- in Western art, of course. There is a precedent for it. In the Bible, Daniel says:

I beheld till thrones were placed,
And one that was ancient of days did sit;
His raiment was as white snow,
And the hair of his head like pure wool;
His throne was fiery flames, and the wheels thereof burning fire ... (Dan. 7:9)

Have readers noticed the large number of posts lately that are a bit long on pictures and a bit short on text? I hope no one minds. Working retail during the holidays, having the flu, and tending to the wine blog have all taken quite a bit of time. Will attempt to become as verbose as ever, soon.