Monday, June 11, 2007

Random Thoughts

I have only 9 working days left before I retire. This is an extremely strange space to be in, with frequent recurrences of the thought, "Why do I care about this?" A firmly rooted Protestant work ethic, however, keeps me focused on the last clean-up tasks.

The Oakland City Council can be pretty odd, and pretty annoying, but at least we haven't elected anyone equivalent to San Francisco Supervisor Ed Jew. The whole incident is giving me second thoughts about instant runoff elections, since it's pretty clear that he would never have been elected in a first-past-the-post contest.

As dangerous as XDR-TB is (that's extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis, in case you were in a cave last week), I think we're over-reacting to it as a society. The case of Andrew Speaker disturbs me deeply, particularly since the head of the CDC is now saying that "we need to have confidence we can take action absent documentation of intent to cause harm" (quoted in the Detroit Free Press). Presumably she means forced quarantine, as they have now imposed on Speaker; or as in the case of Robert Daniels, who is being held in solitary confinement in Arizona because his XDR-TB (which is in the process of killing him, by the way) makes him "a public menace." He was ordered to wear a mask in public, because he is infectious; he didn't do so; and the court locked him up. He is in a medical isolation unit in a jail. He hasn't been outside in 10 months. He hasn't seen a human except his medical attendants. The windows on his solitary cell are frosted; the lights are always on. Interviewers have to talk to him through the door. His wife and son are in Moscow; he may never see them again.

Neither of these men has committed a crime. As far as I know, it's not criminal to go out in public without a surgical mask, even if you do have XDR-TB. It's not criminal to fail to follow your prescribed medical regimen. It's true that to fail to do so causes drug resistant diseases; but then you die of the disease, which could actually be considered enough punishment. The ACLU is suing on Mr. Daniels' behalf, and more power to their elbow; as this man goes, so could we all go.

I don't take tuberculosis lightly. In 1929 my Aunt Margery, whom I know only by repute, died of it; my Uncle John's entire life from the age of 3 was made miserable by it (he got it from his sister, in his hip joint); my mother grew up in a household with two incurable invalids, and she herself had it and recovered, but she always registered positive on the skin test. It is inhumane - it is inhuman - to lock people away like criminals merely because we can't cure their contagious disease. Nobody locked my Aunt Margery away, and her disease was contagious and incurable. Yes, people can die from XDR-TB that they might catch from these patients - but they are all going to die anyway. Can't we show these people some compassion, instead of allowing our fear of catching their disease to turn us all into Nurse Ratched? Whatever happened to, "There but for the grace of God go I"??

Our increasing tendency to criminalize anything we don't agree with or can't control is a very disturbing and dangerous trend; we must stop this.


  1. Anonymous8:38 AM

    You raise a very legitimate concern, hedera. I think this draconian reaction reflects just how fear driven we as a society have become, particularly post-9/11.

    I still think that somewhere in this fear muddle lies the possibility that Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, along with all those extreme renditions, actually helped Bush in '04, perverse and contrary to American values as that seems.

    Anonymous David

  2. Anonymous9:04 AM

    It all fits in with the “we’re afraid” trend. The Patriot’s Act was, I feel, a milestone on this journey of fear. And there are things out there to be afraid of: tainted food, sexual predators, scam artists, technological advances that usurp jobs, the pit bull next door, to name a few. However, there have always been things to be afraid of, and in many cases, being afraid was and is a healthy mind set that can save your life. Fact is, going back into history, it is possible to list similar items that made people afraid: tainted food, sexual predators, scam artists, technological advances that usurp jobs, and the nasty do next door, to name a few. So, what has changed?

    What has changed is some people’s perception we can install bumper pads around life, thereby making us safe. Now we have police, who started with the Pinkertons in the U.S., and the Pindertons weren’t really concerned with your average purse snatcher. But the police keep us safe, right? Plus, we now have the Food and Drug Administration, and they help keep us safe, right? Then there is the Better Business Bureau, and if you really think they keep businesses on the up-and-up, I’ve got some lovely waterfront property for you in New Orleans.

    Technological advances have been, and probably always will be there. For a relatively recent example, take a look at what the Industrial Revolution did to cottage industry, and what the Enclosure Acts did for farming. For an example on this side of the Atlantic, review the effects of agricultural technology on the small farmer and itinerant farm labor. Of course, it is a good idea to be able to produce more consumer products or grow more agricultural products more efficiently, but like almost everything, this has its costs.

    Ah, what about the nasty dog next door? Well, there is animal control. I guess that is one area in which we are a bit safer, but as with so much of human experience, something is usually done after someone is bitten. Here a healthy sense of fear keeps you, and your kids, from sticking a hand through the fence to pet the growling doggie.

    I’ve wondered, was it the hind sighted glory day view of the fifties that makes people think life is safe? Is it the sit-coms where everyone lives in a very nice house with a well kept garden, where somehow no one ever seems to have to cut the grass? Is it the movies, that generally end with the evil doer defeated, the love affair’s problems resolved, or is it the information float? We know what is going on elsewhere, almost, and sometimes exactly, as it happens. This reality, that the only truly safe place is within the pages of a happily after book or movie or television program, or in the golden glow with which we all too often view the past, is perhaps what makes us oh too, too aware of how scary life can be.

    Yet, I doubt that imprisoning people without a trial or a crime, searching someone’s library check-out history, or lengthy security lines at airports, are really going to save us from the dog next door. Sad to say, it usually is the dog next door, in its many guises, we need to be aware of and very healthily afraid indeed.

  3. Anonymous8:23 AM

    I think it comes down to what we do because of our fears, boggart, and what I see Americans doing because of post-9/11 fear-driven mindsets strikes me as bordering on infantile. You are correct, there was no period in which we were "safe," except that in small towns, and even moreso in small communities, children could feel safe. I did. But there was the overarching fear of the Russian bear that produced some pretty bizarre, and pretty infantile, reactions, when the only thing to fear was the existence and use of nuclear weapons, most notably by the United States. Fortunately, when as a child of the Cold War I asked my mother if the Russians were going to attack us with nuclear weapons, she said no, because they had nothing to gain by starting a nuclear war.

    I have even less use for the politically opportunistic promotion of paranoia of the GWOT than I did for that of the Cold War, and I am saddened that Americans are so easily manipulated.

    Anonymous David

  4. Anonymous10:18 AM

    Anonymous David, in reply, personally, I think the safety we felt when more of us lived in small towns, is another fact of perception. Here is an example. I find it scary, because I lived it, and it is one of my very clear childhood memories, if for no other reason than an entirely new view of the world surfaced. (gotta ya’ interested?)

    Okay, this was in Japan, during the occupation, right on the Army base in Tokyo. How could this be less than a safe place to let kids roam? There were guards at the gate. People going in and out were scrutinized. There was a serious, guarded fence around the entire base. Even the Saturday matinee had MPs in the theatre, although that may have been to protect the theatre rather than the kids. Still, kids were pretty much free.

    We rode our bikes around manicured lawns and on roads with enforced 25 mph speed limits. We climbed trees, regardless of where the trees were located. We wandered over the golf course, which was a great place with its large trees. Being Army brats, we knew insignia at a glance. A, “Good afternoon, sir.” to the Colonel was often met with a wave or a, “Hi there.” We played hide and go seek in the dusk after dinner, stole trash can lids to play medieval warriors, and if in a part of housing where we didn’t live, felt free to knock on a door to ask if we could use the bathroom. We hopped on the base shuttle, unaccompanied, to travel to the pool, the craft shops, or just to go to another part of the base. Our parents didn’t worry, and they all had their own versions of calling a child home for a meal or bed. In fact, as twilight deepened into night, the calls of children’s names, and the sounds of various bells and whistles heralded bath and bed time.

    Then one of the neighborhood children vanished while out playing. Of course, it was assumed someone from “off base,” meaning not an American, was the nefarious individual who was responsible. Still, parents were thinking kidnapping for ransom, and that surely an under 10, red-headed little girl would stand out like a sore thumb in an Asian country. Besides, and I remember my parents discussing this, Asians were felt to be caring and protective of children, so it was only the locating of the child that was a concern. There was no thought of her physical safety. I bet you are ahead of me here, as we live in a world where the details of such events are available in small town newspapers as well as on the net.

    The child was found in a shallow grave on the golf course. She had been sexually assaulted before being strangled. To get to the point, the miscreant was a staff sergeant with years in the service. Although parents felt, and parents discussed this interminably, this was an aberration because the sergeant had been injured in the war and had a metal plate in his head. Still, our outside freedom was curtailed. No surprise here. Yet, eventually, because our parents were so sure or so desiring that this was an aberration, we were eventually again allowed the freedom of the base, with instructional safeguards. Everyone I knew got the, “don’t talk to strangers” lecture, and the “don’t go off with anyone without direct permission from Mommy and Daddy.”

    The major point being, this information never reached “home.” Relatives in the United States only heard of this through personal letters. It wasn’t thrust under everyone’s nose via their morning paper. Even back then, in the good old days, children went missing, wives and husbands beat each other up, and life wasn’t really any safer personally than it is now. Well, the improved highways and the availability of personal transport make it a little easier to commit vile acts, but most of the sexual predators prey on people, children and adults, in their own neighborhoods. Simply pay close attention to the latest, or even past situations where someone has been sexually assaulted and killed. There have been several in the San Diego area alone in the last few years, which isn’t an unusual number. Almost all of the perpetrators knew the victim, or lived nearby.

    The difference is the wide spread reporting of such incidents. This is good as it raises awareness of the pit bull next door. It is what was lacking when I was a kid, and that lack, perhaps plus the fact kids played together in packs, is what provided a lovely sense of security that viewed such acts as aberrations in a normal world. Today we know such aberrations are more common than we’d like.

  5. So what does this come down to? We were no safer in "the good old days", we just knew less about it. I buy that; as the old takeoff on Rudyard Kipling goes:

    If you can keep your head when those about you
    Are losin' theirs and blamin' it on you -
    You haven't grasped the situation yet.

    There has been a huge discussion on the local crime watch group's Yahoo news group, on the subject of the current crime wave in north Oakland, and the local police department's lack of response to same. Oakland has one of the highest crime rates in the country, and the OPD has been cracking down on crime in the really bad neighborhoods, the ones where people hit the floor when they hear a backfire because it really might be a gun - result being that some of the crooks are looking for greener pastures to steal from. That would be our neighborhood. Burglaries, muggings, armed robberies on the street are up here; people are paranoid; and it's true for various reasons that the OPD (which is about 100 officers under strength) doesn't respond as quickly as some people would like; sometimes, not at all. The feeling seems to be that we shouldn't HAVE to take all those precautions, and when something does go wrong, the police should be there IMMEDIATELY because we're US - I'm probably overstating here. We should be able to meander down the street plugged into an iPod, or on the phone, never watching who's coming up on us. We shouldn't have to worry about people breaking into our houses.

    This is a city, folks; street assaults and burglaries happen in cities. This is a well-to-do neighborhood, and as Willie Sutton once said when someone asked him why he robbed banks, "That's where the money is."

    I started out trying to make a point, and have gotten a little sidetracked. I think the point was that fear, as boggart said, can be a useful defense mechanism. There's a difference between having no fear (because nothing bad will happen) and taking rational precautions (because something bad might happen) without allowing fear to rule you to the point that you never leave the house or answer the door. (Answering the door is kind of a touchy subject here because a few of the robberies involved people answering a knock on the door and finding themselves looking down the barrel of a gun.)

    But it's the same as all the fear about terrorism: if we change our behavior because we are afraid of X (criminals, terrorists, Republicans), then X has won. And who told us we were supposed to be safe, anyhow?

  6. Anonymous7:51 PM

    I don't actually disagree with anything I've read here, but I did feel safer for good reason. It was safer in my little community, and absolutely no violent crime of any consequence occurred from 1942, when I was born, to 1960, when I graduated from high school. They did in Orlando, and occasionally in Winter Park, and certainly out in the outlaw regions east of Orlando on Highway 50, and we knew to stay away from danger, but the only things we were taught to sort of fear (make that a healthy respect for) were rattlesnakes and moccasins (coral snakes were a danger only to very small children who were left unattended to play with the pretty creatures). We did not fear alligators - we had no reason to.

    During and immediately after WWII, it was perfectly safe to hitchhike, including for women. Actually, it was quite safe for me
    to hitchhike from Gainesville to Orlando when I started college. That changed in the mid-60s when a friend, who was hitchhiking to Indiana, happened to get a ride with someone whom someone else was pissed at and decided to take a shot at with a .45. My friend survived the initial bullet into his brain, but died about a year later.

    My point is that safety was a function of place and a somewhat different attitude toward guns and their use. Going back a couple of centuries, give or take, one of the least safe places one could be, of course, was in a small community out on the frontier.

    I do wonder why America reacted in such an infantile, frightened way to 9/11, one of the lesser violent events even of its time, and certainly of far lesser actual consequence (except for the very real, appalling consequences for the victims and their loved ones) than any of the major cataclysms even of the past 100 years.

    I absolutely do agree that the myth that there was some kind of blanket safety that was destroyed on 9/11 is a great disservice, and that to date Osama bin Laden is winning because of what we are doing to ourselves, our Constitution, and the poor bastards in Iraq under the umbrella of Bushco's GWOT. We need to grow up.

    Anonymous David

  7. Anonymous12:58 PM

    I wonder. Do you suppose the oceans gave us the idea the United States couldn't be touched?

  8. Boggart, of course the oceans gave us the idea the U.S. couldn't be touched. I think that's just basic psychology; and we got it from our British forefathers, whose home was also surrounded by water that (with a couple of exceptions) generally kept out invading armies.

    Anonymous, the world has changed. A world where a relatively small town can have no significant violent crime for 18 years is very different from a world where a mob can beat a man to death, not for driving a car which injured (not very seriously) a small child, but for defending the driver of that car. This happened Tuesday in Austin, Texas, generally considered to be one of the most liberal towns in the state.

    Hitchhiking used to be safe (although my parents never bought that argument!); now it's an act of major recklessness either to hitchhike or to offer a ride, because the risk of encountering a crazy person is roughly the same both ways. The people I see hitching rides on the freeways make the hair stand up on my neck.

    I agree with you entirely about our need to grow up, get over it, and start reclaiming the Constitution that Dubya has been eroding. I would think he was trying to create the situation described in 1984 except that I doubt he is literate enough to have read it.