Return to Iraq

I was very disappointed to learn last week that the president had authorized a military re-engagement in Iraq. I know in some sense we’ve never really left any of the countries we’ve had armed conflicts in, as we seem to have military bases scattered all over the world in really peculiar places from a 21st-century perspective; it is nonetheless disheartening that this president who seems to pride himself on having drawn down our remaining forces in Iraq and Afghanistan publicly, while engaging in a covert drone war that is essentially Bush’s War on Terror 2.0, is ready to begin a new campaign of airstrikes in our old quagmire.

Look, I know that Republicans want America to flex its muscles any time a pretty girl walks down the beach or a bully starts kicking sand in the bespectacled eyes of a Euro- or Middle Eastern nerd, but there’s no point in doing any of this to satisfy the administration’s war-hawk critics if for no other reason than that it won’t. Those critics have made it abundantly clear now, six years into Obama’s presidency, that there is no action that he could take in either domestic or international quarters that would be the right action. If Iraq is destabilized and eventually taken over by ISIS, they will claim this is because of his early withdrawal of forces and that we failed to provide sufficient logistical or “boots-on-the-ground” support to the central government. If ISIS ceases pushing into unoccupied sections of Iraq in order to consolidate its gains on a temporary or permanent basis, they will declare that we should move quickly to take back Fallujah and Mosul from the “terrorists.” In any case, they will always blame anything that goes wrong on Obama’s alleged failure to project America’s strength throughout the world the way that <insert your favorite Republican candidate or former president here> would have done.

So we can safely ignore that nonsense. What about America’s “you broke it, you bought it” responsibilities? It should be abundantly clear to anyone who’s been paying even the slightest modicum of attention over the last 11 years that America’s nation-building efforts in the Middle East have been and will continue to be a colossal failure for a variety of reasons. The bottom line is that while we do bear some responsibility for the present state of Iraq, being the fragmented country that it was since the Allies drew its lines up after World War II, after we destroyed its infrastructure and the strong central government and replaced it with basically nothing. However we cannot seriously expect that another military engagement will result in anything other than more death, more destruction, and more misery for Iraqis. All we have to do is look at what happened in Bosnia to see how truly effective a campaign of airstrikes is for effecting political change. We would also do well to remember that the term “smart bomb” is a terrible oxymoron and however much we might like to pretend otherwise no airstrike will ever attain the precision that can be achieved with the physical presence of soldiers on the battlefield in a war zone. When we say that we’re using  targeted airstrikes to destroy our enemies, what we really mean is that the lives of our soldiers are more valuable than the lives of the citizens that live in the countries of our enemies. That is an appalling calculus to make.

I wish there were a voice of reason in Washington, someone who would stand up and say, “There is nothing to be gained by taking half-measures and pretending that this makes us somehow better than everyone else.” War is not the answer because this is a civil war, albeit one being directed from across the Syrian border. If we intervened in every civil war across the world we could do nothing else–and we would be held accountable for the next tyrannical regime that would inevitably emerge from such a conflagration. It’s not isolationism to recognize that we have never been and never can be “the world’s policeman.” While I see no harm in unilateral humanitarian missions, there simply is no dividend from repeating Clinton’s mistakes of the 1990s.

Between the initial draft of this post and its imminent publication, America has apparently committed to putting combat troops on the ground in northern Iraq and staging relief efforts from an airfield located in the same area. The news gets worse and worse.

Ghost stories

Sting released his album Brand New Day in 1999, around the same time I became reacquainted with the woman who would later become my wife. As I was making our bed today, I contemplated this song from that album, one of her personal favorites:

I had heard it myself before we listened to it together but it was her special take on the song that made me reflect on how she has a unique way of viewing things. To me, the song described a lonely man in the heart of winter, stoking a fire and bitterly reflecting on a lost love. But, perhaps because of the tempo shift that occurs in this version right at 2:50, Angie painted an entirely different story, something that went beyond the original lyrical content to paint a tale of redemption and renewal not despair and suffering. When I asked her once, in this time before we were married, how exactly she could view this song that seemed to be drenched in sorrow as a happy song, one that she thinks of as one of “our” songs, she told me that it’s obvious that at the end, once the man admits to himself the truth he’s been denying for so long–that he truly loved this woman who was now gone–he immediately set off to find her and to be with her.

And I’ve never viewed it the same way since. While I still feel there is some validity to my original interpretation of Sting’s intent, Angie’s extratextual view quite frankly better fits the theme of the album on which the song lives, which is indeed about new beginnings. Her story is better than mine.

Audubon Insectarium appears tailored to appeal primarily to children

The Audubon Insectarium is evidently the red-headed stepchild of the Audubon Institute family of parks. We visited the facility several weeks ago and simply getting in proved to be more challenging than I anticipated. Because the Institute made the dubious decision to locate this attraction on the premises of a federal building, there is an absurdly high level of security required to enter, including a  metal detector and an x-ray scanner for your personal belongings. We didn’t get to experience any of that at first, of course, because we had pocket knives that we customarily carry on our persons. When Angie apprised one of the guards of this fact, he told us rather pointedly that signs were posted outside the building and that we were breaking the law by standing there. So we walked the four blocks back to the car because I refused to throw my knife away outside the building. When we returned to the facility, we then got to experience the full range of amenities at the security checkpoint, including having to remove EVERYTHING from my pockets and take off my belt. The lady behind me had to remove her shoes because they apparently had some kind of metal component that offended the walk-through detector. It was all fairly humiliating for a simple trip to a zoological feature; I haven’t had that level of scrutiny in any airport I’ve ever travelled through.

After the trial that was getting into the facility, we discovered (not to my great surprise) that the “Insectarium” could probably be more properly referred to as an “Arthropodarium” (although I will concede that this does not roll off the tongue quite as smoothly). We were greeted near the entrance by some fantastic cave roaches, a species I had not seen in person previously. These are quite large organisms, getting as large as 10 centimeters (by comparison the largest roaches you are likely to encounter “in the wild” locally are American cockroaches which only grow to approximately 40 mm). Next we encountered some velvet worms and millipedes. An assortment of leaf- and stick-mimics were on display along with a colony of leafcutter ants, Formosan termites (a huge problem for wooden structures in New Orleans), and curiously, yellow-fever mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti), which have largely been displaced in this area (for decades) by Aedes albopictus.

There were numerous kid-oriented features. These included a “walk underground area” complete with a motion-triggered giant fake spider (fortunately I was able to steer Angie clear of this); a demonstration area with trap-jaw ants and Madagascar hissing roaches; and a “4-D” movie theater with a short, slightly-educational eight-minute animated film. The “4D” is apparently a term that refers to “interactive” features such as a misting spray to simulate pheremones and “jumping” seats to simulate the sensation of something crawling under your butt. William Castle would be proud.

There is also an “insect tasting” where visitors can try prepared edible insects but we were too late for the morning offering.

The tour finishes with a gratuitously Japanese-themed butterfly garden with tortoises, birds, and a koi pond tossed in for good measure. The butterfly garden is interesting enough but it’s fairly small and padded with lots of non-lepidopteran things and thus pales in comparison to the one found at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Unsurprisingly, the butterfly garden exits directly to the gift shop.

A casual trip through the facility will take approximately an hour. Given the extraordinary diversity represented by the Insecta alone, on the whole I found this experience to be somewhat underwhelming. The collection is not terribly large nor does it appear that much effort was made to design this facility with a sufficient scope to give kids or adults an appreciation for insects. There are no apterygotes and no real mention that they exist. There was a larger bee colony at the now-defunct Louisiana Nature Center (and there exists a larger one at the Bluebonnet Swamp BREC park in Baton Rouge). Aside from the economic damage caused by termites, the ecological benefits of ants, and the human costs of yellow fever, there is little discussion of the impact that insects have on the world and on Man. At the end of the day, this is essentially more of a “place to take the kids on the weekend” than a zoological park.

NEWS FLASH: Republicans invent phony crisis, use it to justify not passing a budget and closing the federal government

By now, everyone is aware that the federal government is operating an unpaid skeleton crew, thanks to Congress’s failure to pass a budget for the 2014 fiscal year. Naturally, the question is “why?” Ask House Republicans and the answer you will get is this: “The president refused to negotiate with us.” Wow, that sounds bad. I wonder why this most conciliatory of executives wouldn’t negotiate with House leaders. Oh, wait, that’s right, it’s because this is complete and utter bullshit.

House Republicans would not submit a bill that did not include provisions for “defunding” the Affordable Care Act. What is the connection between the Affordable Care Act and a functioning federal government? Nothing really. The connection is between the success of the Affordable Care Act and the subsequent downward spiral of support for Republican policies. A two-year-old law, challenged to and upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States and the subject of over 40 meaningless “repeal” votes in the lower chamber of Congress, whose stated objective and actual consequence would be to make health insurance (and thereby health care) more accessible and affordable for everyone, has nothing at all to do with funding government services.

Since Republicans want to talk about health care so badly, let’s do that. There is NO excuse for one of the world’s wealthiest nations to have some of the poorest health outcomes and yet have the highest healthcare costs. Take a look at this analysis: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2012/10/health-costs-how-the-us-compares-with-other-countries.html. Why are we paying more for health care in this country and getting less? Are we dramatically healthier than France, England, Switzerland, or Canada? What are we getting for these dollars?

One of many federal government websites that were shuttered as a result of the shutdown.

One of many federal government websites that were shuttered as a result of the shutdown.

Apparently we’re reaping the benefits of tremendous administrative costs. Um, yay? The Affordable Care Act was the Democrats’ attempt to address some of the problems with this country’s health insurance system. Here are some things it does:

1) Allows dependent children to remain on their parents’ insurance up to the age of 26

2) Requires insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions

3) Sets up state-run exchanges that allow people to purchase health insurance at a lower cost than they would have purchasing coverage as an individual

One of the big problems with the way health insurance is currently operated in this country is that young and healthy people don’t buy insurance through some common delusion of immortality and invulnerability. Because insurance is an industry that is based on collective calculated risk, premiums are higher when only sick people have insurance. When the risk and the cost are spread throughout the population in a more even-handed manner, costs are lowered for everyone.

That’s the Democratic plan; what is the Republican plan? Apparently it’s to let costs continue to skyrocket so that fewer people have insurance and no one can afford to get sick. As the old joke goes, the Republican plan for health insurance reform is “don’t get sick.” Most people understand that broken systems do not fix themselves. However, rather than proposing some alternative ideas for solving what is a genuine crisis in this country, Republicans take the chickenshit way out of manufacturing an economic crisis and blaming Democrats in general and the president in particular for wanting more people to have access to affordable health care.

By the way, if you’re enjoying the current stupid self-imposed gunshot-wound-to-the-face that is the federal government shutdown, this is merely a preview of the forthcoming 2013 debt-ceiling crisis. I know it feels like we just did this last year–because we did. And this is what the Republicans want this year in exchange for doing something that was a routine practice until Obama came into office–essentially enacting the entire Republican legislative agenda. When that doesn’t happen by October 17, they’ll gladly force the nation to default on its debt for the first time in .  .  . ever.

To the Northshore

The first day of autumn 2013 was appropriately and uncharacteristically (for Louisiana) rather cool. I decided I would drag Angie away from her studies on the day after my birthday (which was a very rain-drenched affair) to a park we had never before visited. We hopped into our newly-returned Corolla late Sunday morning and headed east, destination: Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.

After scouting out the route to the park  from the intersection of LA-59 and U.S. 190, we started thinking about an interesting local place to grab some lunch. After tossing around a few ideas, Angie found a place called Rips on the Lake on her phone and it was only a few miles to the west, so we decided to check it out. The restaurant was indeed on the lake and it was a large, two-story building with the main dining areas upstairs and a vast patio/bar area downstairs. Angie and I sat at a wrought-iron table on the porch and watched the lake across the street.

The salads were great but the main courses were merely okay (my shrimp were a bit bland and Angie’s oysters were not her favorite). As many of you reading this may know, I’m on something of an eternal quest to find the ultimate bread pudding and Rips had an unusual contestant–a blueberry pudding with a traditional rum sauce. It was far superior to the dreadful concoction I ruined a day earlier by adding too much bread.

After a long and leisurely lunch, we drove back over to the park. The park had been devastated by Hurricane Isaac last year. We met and spoke with the ranger manning the visitors’ center, who was carving a slingshot. He explained that he was sitting outdoors because the building had been inundated by water during the storm, despite the fact that it is several miles north of the lake. The storm also washed away part of the hiking trail, a boardwalk that led over a marshy area. There were quite a few revelers at the beach, though. The park had a fairly small beach area, dominated by picnic pavilions, playground equipment, and a splash play area.

Of professional interest to me was the site of the old Fontainbleau Plantation Sugar Mill. Nothing remains of the structures beyond some crumbling brick shells of buildings. In the mid-19th century, Bernard de Marigny used the site as his summer home and also pioneered the processing of sugar cane in the area. Marigny built the town of Mandeville as a part of his real-estate investments.

We arrived home late in the afternoon, but it was a great way to cap the weekend.

The trouble with vouchers

The Louisiana Supreme Court dealt Louisiana’s expanded voucher program a significant blow on May 7, when it declared that the governor could not, in fact, dip into the state’s constitutionally-allocated public school funding (known as the Minimum Foundation Program) in order to pay for it. The governor was quick to whip out the silver lining in this dark policy cloud, stating that the court had merely rejected his proposed funding but had not declared the concept of vouchers inherently illegal. And he’s right–vouchers aren’t unconstitutional or illegal, they’re just a really really bad idea.

Voucher proponents tout the idea of giving money that would otherwise go to public schools to private or charter schools as a way of giving poor kids a way to get a quality education that they would not otherwise have access to. Some of the people making this argument are parents who genuinely think this is a novel and good approach to the problems in our educational system (i.e., if we just find the right school for Junior, everything will be perfect). Most of the people making this argument, however, are cynics who are attempting to manipulate the education system in this country to their benefit and they could give two halves of a rat’s ass about some poor kid with low test scores in a school with collapsing ceilings, aging textbooks, and teachers with extremely low morale.

To understand the problem with vouchers you have to understand why we have a public education system in this country and in other countries. In the past, a formal education was the exclusive domain of the wealthy and those who could gain the patronage of the upper-class. Because our Western societies are more enlightened, in the last several centuries, we’ve seen the development of compulsory state-sponsored education in many countries, with the express purpose of having a literate citizenry better able to intelligently exercise the right of franchise that has been granted to them. Public school curricula are designed to present history, science, mathematics, writing, and other core subjects in a straightforward and nonpartisan manner. These schools are free to all, regardless of the wealth/social status of one’s parents. Public education exists because one of the key principles of our society is that an educated populace is a well-informed populace and the best kind to make decisions about our present and future goals as a nation.

Vouchers do two important things to undermine these principles: 1) they weaken the public education system by shifting resources to private schools; and 2) they aid in the distortion of educational curricula because charter and private schools do not operate under the same rules as public schools. Vouchers are not an education reform unless you just like using words to mean things they don’t really mean. Shifting resources and students away from “failing” public schools does nothing to address the problems that may exist at those schools. Quite the contrary, it is a way of saying that you are willing to essentially abandon those who remain at those institutions because they weren’t lucky enough to win the lottery–maybe next year. The typical conservative approach to education is to a) promote vouchers and b) promote teacher “reforms.” The problem that many people do not wish to acknowledge is that schools and teachers do not exist in a vacuum. If a child does not get adequate nutrition, does not have time or a quiet place to study when away from school due to extrinsic factors such as having to take care of siblings or working, does not have parents who care and aid him/her in doing the work that succeeding in school requires, that child can have the greatest teachers and administrators and facilities in which to learn for eight hours a day and it won’t make a damn bit of difference. Are there bad or lazy teachers in public schools? Sure, because there are people who are terrible at or indifferent to their jobs everywhere. Does that mean that changes to tenure policies and having more standardized tests will solve our education woes?

Those who have seen The Revisionaries or some of Zach Kopplin’s reporting on where Louisiana was sending some of its voucher money understand the problems that funding private schools with no restraints and little accountability can create. The savvy political operators on the right are pushing vouchers with the precise idea of derailing the system of public education in this country and replacing it with a network of private schools teaching distorted versions of science and history. When a few generations emerge from this “new school order” with their tin foil hats pointed at the sky, the people who shaped that system for this purpose will have achieved their goal of producing an American public willing to go along with whatever notions or candidates are tossed their way. If you think this sounds like a paranoid fantasy, Bill Bennett has already talked about taking over school boards as a means to change curricula; is my dystopian vision of a school system which promotes creationism and the notion that Joe McCarthy was a pretty good guy really that far-off?

Future assassins laud the failure of the Manchin-Toomey amendment

In a move that delighted a certain segment of the U.S. populace, Senate Republicans voted Wednesday to defeat the Manchin-Toomey amendment, signaling that significant obstacles lie ahead for any new and significant gun control legislation in the wake of the Newtown, CT school shootings last year. Only four Republicans voted with the majority, which fails to meet the 60-vote threshold required to defeat an inevitable Republican filibuster of the measure.

While families of the victims of mass shootings were understandably disappointed, others were ecstatic. Timothy Leeds, a 22-year-old construction worker in Colorado Springs, CO., who had just started to scout local day-care centers as potential targets, said he couldn’t be happier. “Even though I spent some time in Buena Vista [Correctional Facility], I know a couple of junkies who’ll do anything for money,” he smiled. “This will make it so much easier for me to get my hands on the right gun and enough ammo to really make my mark in the world. I’ll show those kids in high school who said I was a f@#$ing tool!”

Others, like Gary Soto of Little Rock, AR,  were excited about the inaction on reducing the size of legally-available ammunition clips. Soto said he had been concerned that someone might have a chance to stop his planned attack on the Judge Isaac C. Parker Federal Building while he was reloading his Bushmaster. “Hold on,” he added, “I’m just getting an update on the president’s movements from the Ancient One.”

Wednesday’s action coincided with new NRA-drafted legislation sponsored by Ted Cruz of Texas that would make it illegal not to carry a loaded firearm in schools, day care centers, churches, and hospitals. Dustin Johnson, 15, of Blakely, GA, was pleased with this turn of events. He said that school administrators were afraid to expel him in the wake of yesterday’s events, despite his numerous threats of violence against school officials and fellow students. “I will be the best school shooter!” Johnson cackled.

As gun-control advocates try to regroup, Chuck Grassley of Iowa warned that prospects for any significant changes to gun regulations were bleak. “There is simply no way to ensure that fewer people are maimed or killed by guns than by putting more guns in the hands of honest, law-abiding citizens, who will then be able to prevent crimes before they happen by slaughtering. . .,um, by righteously defending others,” Grassley said in a press release.