Let’s not be lulled by a lull in global warming

A few news stories don’t make a trend, but it seems as if the mass media are misreading some short term trends to present a more optimistic view of our future on earth than we really face.

Much of the news media has covered the news that the average global temperature has failed to rise over the past 15 years, despite the soaring levels of greenhouse gases we have been pumping into the atmosphere.  While no reporter has quoted Desi Arnaz yet, the tone of the articles could clearly be captured by his stock phrase, “Lucy, you have some ‘splaining to do.”

The argument that treading water for 15 years disproves or calls into question the theory of human-induced climate change is absurd for several reasons. First of all, the earth is still much hotter than it was 150 years ago, much of the icecaps have already melted and we still have dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide in our oceans.  And while the average temperature on earth may have remained the same over the past 15 years, some parts of the earth have grown warmer, including the United States and most of Europe and China.

Secondly, those who only look at the last 15 years make the mistake of trend localization: They are judging changes that take centuries on the basis of a few years. The earth goes through natural cycles of warming and cooling. Most phenomena act that way—the stock market doesn’t go up every day even during a raging bull market and children don’t grow the same amount every month or even every year, but grow by spurts. The important question is whether the average temperature on earth would be lower during the current cycle without the impact of all that additional carbon we are generating. I’m betting the answer is yes.

There is also the issue of the complexity of life on earth—our ecosystem comprises a number of cycles and smaller interlocking ecosystems. It’s possible that the earth has made a partial adjustment, but if we keep burning fossil fuels at the current rate, sooner or later, the earth will become less flexibility. The increase in drought areas, the thriving of jellyfish in the oceans, the extinction or threatened extinction of so many species—so much is happening that tells us we have to change our ways or risk destroying our planet. By all means, scientists should continue to study the models that predict global warming. But we shouldn’t use a misinterpretation of short-term facts as an excuse for keeping our heads in the sand about climate change.

One environmental challenge—and I see it as the main one—is the sheer number of human beings walking the planet, about seven billion right now. It’s very convenient to ignore population control. The religious issues aside, most economist and politicians love an increasing population because it’s an easy way to grow the economy and they are addicted to growth. Any campaign to stabilize or reduce the population requires a plan to address how an economy may thrive without growth—in a solid state or even shrinking. My idea of thriving clearly doesn’t mean “growing bigger” but rather producing a high quality of life and economic opportunities for all its members.

Like the end of easy oil, reaching a population level that in unsustainable is the unspoken fear. It’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.  Many people, then, must have breathed a sigh of relief to learn the news that the standard forecast for population growth may be too high.

But like the report of a stable temperature over 15 years, “not as bad as” still doesn’t mean “good.” Instead of predicting that the world’s population will reach 10.9 billion by 2100, the latest statistical model says our population will peak at 8.7 billion by around 2055 and then decline to 8 billion by the turn of the next century. The models are based on the theory that as nations develop their citizens have fewer children. It’s a corollary of the idea that animals follow one of two reproductive strategies—have a lot of offspring and pay them no attention, or have a few and put a lot of energy into helping them, to survive. In human terms, when people get wealthier, they tend to have fewer children.  The experience of Europe, the United States (except our immigrants) and Japan seems to support this idea.

The only problem is that even our current population of seven billion is too high. Half that amount is too high. The earth cannot carry so many humans on a long-term basis. We use too many of the earth’s non-renewable resources and leave too many messes in our wake. And imagine if most of the world raised its standard of living to the levels of Japan or Western Europe—they might produce fewer offspring but each person would be using a lot more resources!

I doubt that we will be able to formulate an adequate response to global warming and resource shortages without lowering the population on earth substantially.

Historically there have been three ways that human populations have decreased: war, famine or epidemics.  Let’s hope that instead of riding these three horses of the Apocalypse, most countries will instead decide to pursue aggressive policies to reduce our population in a more peaceful way: birth control. More people must make the decision to have one child in their lifetime, be it by following a new social norm or a draconian law.

So don’t believe that there’s good news about global warming and populations trends. These recent optimistic news reports are the equivalent of learning that you won’t die in six weeks, but in eight weeks—if the trends stay lucky.

A poem from “Music from Words” about 2 oppressed housewives of the 1950’s

I’ve been occasionally posting one of the poems from my book, Music from Words. My hope is that some dear readers will buy one or more copies of the book. The best place to buy Music from Words is either from the publisher, Bellday Books or from Amazon or another online book store. You can also order it at virtually all brick-and-mortar book stores.

Today’s poem, “Dot and Sylvia,” was originally published a few years back in Mississippi Review.  It’s about two housewives of the 1950’s and early 1960’s who suffered from the malaise that Bette Friedan called the feminine mystique. One of the women is the poet Sylvia Plath.


Both plunged beads of boiling fudge through frigid water

at the perfect point, without thermometer,

beat egg and air with effortless wrist spins,

created endless games with plastic dinosaurs

and pieces of paper on rainy afternoons,

peeled fruit for all children and adults she loved,

fell to knees in mock anger and pointed index finger

to emphasize a discrepancy in height,

played Stravinsky and Carmen with Leontyne Price,

taught children funny words to the Toreador Song,

listened tenderly as others told their lives,

loved to talk about books she read,

to feel big wet drops fall on her hair and face in an open field,

to close eyes and imagine making love

to the warm flat stone on which she was sunning,

wanted a strong and brilliant male to obliterate her

then hated him for doing so,

spoke often of what others thought of her

of what they thought she thought they thought,

stewed about public snubs that no one else could see,

said nasty things when she couldn’t hold her liquor,

would suddenly turn on others, then seek forgiveness,

requested permission to loathe her mother,

mouthed troubling phrases:

stasis in darkness

the brown arc

the dew that flies

she never loved me

he touched me in that spot,

fluctuated between loving every stranger

and abhorring her own flesh,

savored jolt after jolt of current

piercing her body like a lover gone wild,

stayed in bed by day, paced halls by night,

found it easier to remember

moments of gloom than moments of radiance,

examined several forms of suicide

until selecting one, and here they differed:

Sylvia stuck her head in an oven.

Dot swallowed pills.

–          Marc Jampole


Originally published in The Mississippi Review Vol. 31 #1-2 (Spring 2003) and Music from Words (Bellday Books, 2007)

Moving in retirement to avoid school taxes is the epitome of the politics of selfishness

Last time we cited Tom Sightings, self-proclaimed retirement expert, he was conjuring images of the various dream retirements to which he assumed the American public might aspire.  His catalogue of utopias reflected the pro-suburban ideology that dominates the mass media: golf communities, small university towns, beach fronts and suburban houses. Not one of Sighting’s dream retirements involved living in a city with great mass transit, an abundance of public spaces, cultural activities and entertainment, top-rated healthcare systems, the exciting buzz of cultural diversity and tremendous resources for seniors. In Sightings’ world, cities just don’t exist.

The latest view from Sightings highlights an ideological principle that has dominated U.S. public discourse since the election of Ronald Regan in 1980: the politics of selfishness, the idea that everyone should pursue his or her own private agenda, no matter how harmful it might be to others or to the community at large. Symbolic of the politics of selfishness is Reagan’s favorite joke about not having to outrun a bear, just one’s companion (who will then get ripped to shreds by the bear).

Sightings doesn’t come out and explicitly say, “Care only about yourself” in his recent U.S. News & World Report article.  What he proposes, in a soft-shoe, gently prodding kind of way, is that retired people move out of their communities to avoid paying high school taxes.

After all, their kids have long graduated from high school, so who cares about the next generation!

Sightings employs the increasingly irritating rhetorical device of building the story around himself (the writer) and his situation. The article begins when he receives the school tax bill which has increased by four percent. He grumbles that his income has not increased by that much.  Continuing the article as a first person narration, Sightings tells us of a dinner his wife and he shared a few days later with a couple who had just moved to a new town to avoid high school taxes.  Sightings quotes the husband: “Who needs to pay those high school taxes, he ventured, when your kids are grown up and gone away?” Sightings continues: “Left unsaid was the other question: Who can afford those school taxes when you’re no longer pulling in a paycheck, and instead living on a fixed income?”

After some wishy-washy discussion of the pros and cons of moving to avoid school taxes and a spackling of information about states that reduce property taxes for seniors, Sightings ends the column fully on the side of moving: “But then I see that school tax bill sitting over there on the corner of my desk. It’s due by the end of September. And our youngest child graduated from the local school system four years ago. Maybe it’s time to start looking for our place in the sun, after all.”

What Sightings doesn’t see, or doesn’t want to see, is that when he sent his children to school, large numbers of his fellow townspeople were paying property taxes to fund public schools who had already sent their children through schools and many more who hadn’t had children yet or never were going to have any. Even parents who sent their children to private schools contributed to educating Sightings’ children. Now it’s his turn and he wants selfishly to shrug his responsibility.  After all, he got his.

There are many great reasons to move in retirement: to be near grown children or to live one’s dream, be it on a quiet shore or in a high rise co-op overlooking the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. “Chacun sa chimère,” as Baudelaire once said (which translates into “To each, his or her illusion.”) It’s also true that some people move to smaller homes in retirement or are forced to move to cut expenses.

But to move just to avoid taxes is as anti-social as robbing a convenience store or embezzling from a nonprofit organization.

Latest mass shooting shows need for stiffer gun purchase laws and better national database

The Washington Naval Yard mass murder has produced a macabre good news/bad news story:

The good news is that a week before the shooting a Virginia gun dealer didn’t sell an AR-15 assault rifle to the shooter, Aaron Alexis, because Alexis wasn’t a resident of the state, a requirement under Virginia state law.

The bad news is that the dealer did sell Alexis the pump-action shot gun he used to kill 12 innocent people.

What if Virginia had tougher laws and only permitted sales of all kinds of guns to residents? Or what if gun purchase standards were higher everywhere and we had a robust database of gun offenders and persons with documented behavior that should preclude gun ownership, behavior like hearing “voices speaking to him through the wall,” as Alexis heard?

It should be tragically clear to everyone that stiffened gun control laws would have prevented Alexis from just walking into a store and buying a lethal weapon.  Those who argue that a criminal will find a way to get a gun forget that Alexis, Lanza and most of our mass murderers are not criminals. Something else they all have in common: all manifested behavioral problems that should have precluded legal gun ownership or use.

We now seem to have these national days of mourning and hand-wringing about every six months. The public discourse following these tragedies almost always follows a classic formula: Gun control advocates point out the obvious lesson that we need to tighten gun control, while gun industry toadies and factotums create tortuous arguments to show that the mass murder really proves we need more guns in the street and less gun control.  Major political figures say they will renew efforts to pass gun control laws, but “momentum” peters out in days or weeks.  There’s a spike in both gun sales (out of fear of gun control) and articles in the mass media analyzing the impossibility of getting any gun control legislation passed. Nothing happens.

That’s sad, but what’s even sadder is that these occasional mass murders collectively represent a drop in the bucket of all the U.S. deaths and injuries annually from guns—from accidents, disputes among family and friends, suicides and murder.  If we use a base figure of 32,000 deaths by guns a year, that works out to almost 88 a day. We typically have national days of mourning when a crazed killer takes the lives of 12 or 24 people.  Perhaps we should declare every day a day of mourning.

The gun lobby has tried to sell us the bill of goods that more people packing will make the streets safer, because the bad guys will be frightened of retaliation. A study released today shows that argument is completely bogus: The study, published Wednesday in the American Journal of Medicine (AJM), compares the rate of firearms-related deaths in countries where many people own guns with the gun death rate in countries where gun ownership is rare. The US, with the most guns per head in the world, has the highest rate of deaths from firearms, while Japan, which has the lowest rate of gun ownership, has the least. The study concludes that guns make a nation less safe. AJM published the study early because of the shootings at the Washington Naval Yard.

New book shows that poverty affects brain and makes it harder to think, work, learn

Thanks to Cass Sunstein for reviewing Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much in the latest New York Review of Books. In Scarcity, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir collect and analyze an impressive amount of research to demonstrate that those who suffer a scarcity of a resource—say food or money—dedicate more of their brain to addressing that scarcity, thereby degrading their ability to attend to their daily tasks, in school or on the job.

According to Mullainathan and Shafir, scarcity “puts people in a kind of cognitive tunnel, limiting what they are able to see. It depletes their self-control. It makes them more impulsive and sometimes a bit dumb. What we often consider a part of people’s basic character—an inability to learn, a propensity to anger or impatience—may well be a product of their feeling of scarcity,” to quote Sunstein. The book cites a ton of empirical research that shows that the effects of scarcity cut across all possible types of scarcity.

The most striking study mentioned in the review tested Indian sugar cane workers before the harvest when they were broke and after the harvest when they had lots of money. The difference in scores amounted to 9 or 10 points on an I.Q. test, which measures certain intellectual capabilities correlated with success in school and in professional employment.  On an I.Q. test, ten points means a lot: for example, about 28% of the population scores between 106-115, while only 9% of the population scores between 116-125.

In other words, not only do rich and upper middle class children have the advantages of classes and lessons, summer camps, trips abroad, private tutors, SAT prep courses and the doors that money and business contacts can offer. The wealthy also have an inherent advantage in that their brains are not drained by scarcity concerns as the brains of poor children are.  The easiest way to improve our educational system would be to end poverty, which would enable formerly poor children to focus their brain on learning and not on the anxiety of not knowing when the next meal will be.

A few years back, the mainstream media and politicians were completely enamored by an article titled “Growth in a Time of Debt” by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, which concluded that countries with public debt greater than 90 percent of GDP suffered measurably slower economic growth. In This Time Is Different, the two right-wing economists ostensibly fleshed out the theory with examples across the centuries.  Mainstream politicians and journalists throughout the world embraced this “new discovery,” using it to bolster assertions that we had to deal with the debt instead of pumping money into the economy.

The problem was that Reinhart and Rogoff miscalculated in a number of places and even made typographical errors. When their bad math was corrected, it was found that there was no correlation between levels of debt and economic growth.

Many people wanted to believe Reinhart and Rogoff were right because they wanted to cut the budget, regardless of the pain and the economic havoc it caused. Of course it didn’t work out—Europe’s austerity program backfired and the U.S. limited “rescue” of its economy produced uneven and weak results. Through it all, inequality continued to grow, especially in the United States. The distribution of wealth in this country is now less equitable than it has been in more than in a century.

As of this writing, a Google key word search yields about 3,000 mentions of Scarcity, which is not even a drop in the ocean of web pages floating around cyberspace.  It’s still too early to tell, but I’m betting the mainstream news media is going to ignore Scarcity for the most part and few politicians outside maybe Bill de Blasio will reference it.

But imagine if Scarcity captured the imagination of politicians and pundits the way that Reinhart & Rogoff’s bogus research did, or the way Michael Harrington’s poignant expose of poverty, The Other America, did in the early 1960’s?

What if our various governments started to create public policies and new laws to address the implications of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much? If Scarcity is true (and the Sunstein’s extensive review makes we want to read it as soon as I can), that puts a whole new light on Republican efforts to decrease funding for food stamps and unemployment benefits. The very nature of poverty distorts and weakens the thinking process, so that once people fall into poverty it is very hard to escape.  It makes sense then to be as generous as possible with these benefits in times of economic distress, to keep as many people out of poverty as possible.

Widespread knowledge of the findings by Mullainathan and Shafir would lean the debate over minimum wage and health care decidedly to the left, as think tank pundits and government policy makers quoted the book to assert the need to protect Americans from the negative effect of scarcity in general, and of medical care in particular.

Scarcity also serves as an epiphany for the great challenge facing the United States in the area of education. Rich people are spending more to educate their children while their state and federal representatives continue to cut budgets for public schools.  Meanwhile, a college education has become a major drain on the finances of most families.  Equal opportunity movements focused on voting and jobs in the 20th century. In the 21st century, the real battle ground for equal opportunity may be over education.

For the past 30 years, we have passed laws and followed policies that increase the number of people facing scarcities of money, food, health care and now education. We have in effect degraded our intellectual stock by putting more panic into more people. Creating a more unequal society has weakened our collective ability to learn and to work. If our leaders believed the message of Scarcity they would pursue an entirely different set of policies that would resemble the policies our nation pursued in the 1950’s, 1960’s and early 1970’s. You know, when we had general prosperity, a lower rate of poverty, a more equal distribution of the wealth, strong unions, mostly great public schools—and, not coincidentally, much higher taxes on the wealthy.


For your reading pleasure, another poem from OpEdge author’s book

I’ve been occasionally posting one of the poems from my book, Music from Words. My hope is that some dear readers will buy one or more copies of the book. The best place to buy Music from Words is either from the publisher, Bellday Books or from Amazon or another online book store. You can also order it at virtually all brick-and-mortar book stores.

This time, I present “Liana to Rafflesia” from the section of Music from Words titled “Love Songs. “Liana to Rafflesia appeared in Ellipsis about eight years ago.

The rafflesia is the largest flower in the world, more than a yard in diameter.  It is an epiphyte, which means it doesn’t grow in soil, but rather on bark or other surfaces.  The rafflesia spends most of its life as a filament of fiber inside the liana vine, then pops up on the liana bark and a few weeks later is this enormous flower.   The narrator of this poem is a liana that is in love with a rafflesia.

Liana to rafflesia

And still I love you,

rootless, leafless, stemless parasite.


Your filaments entwine inside me, vegetate,

migrate to my woody skin, form a knot.


The knot becomes a bud becomes a globe

becomes a russet cabbage slowly swelling

becomes enormous leathered flower,

vermillion petals stretch a meter.


Stamen and pistil embrace, create

a white corona at your center

seven splendid days until you shrivel,

plummet from my bark to steamy jungle floor.


And still I climb the lower slopes

in love with you as you deplete me,

as I deplete you, be your rafflesia

and you as my liana, letting me

suck life inside your vine,

complete my blooming

in and on your body.


Our parasitic sport

becomes our need becomes our love.

–     Marc Jampole


Originally published in Ellipsis #41 (Spring 2005) and  Music from Words (Bellday Books, 2007)

Study implies the American dream has been reduced to a series of financial goals

Debt free and financially secure at retirement. That’s how people now define the American dream, according to a new study by Credit.com.

Here are all the results:

Define the American Dream

Retiring financially secure:  27.9%

Being debt-free:  23%

Owning a home: 18.2%

Graduating from college (paying off student loans):  6.0%

Joining the 1%:  3%

Other; 11.4%

None: .2%

Don’t know/no response: 8.5%

Only one problem with the survey: Credit.com gave these options to the participants, as opposed to asking the open-ended question, What is the American dream? Everything that Credit.com asked about has to do with money: Nothing aspirational or non-material. Just a bunch of financial objectives, each of which may require credit or other financial services.

The natural question is whether Credit.com’s selection of options reflects its natural concern for money matters or does it reflect the social ideals of the 21st century. In other words, is it more subtle propaganda from the financial industry or a true representation of how we now define the American dream?

The concept of the American dream sounds as if it has been around since Europeans rediscovered North America at the end of the 15th century. The actual term, however, can only be traced back to James Truslow Adams (1878-1949), born rich. Adams first used the term in his The Epic of America, written at the height of the depression in 1931. To Adams, the American dream is “of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement…It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

That pretty much sounds like the dream imagined by Martin Luther King 50 years ago, a dream that’s defined in public terms as a more perfect society. This American dream is defined by opportunity, fairness, democracy and the pursuit of happiness. King tinges the dream with social justice as well, the idea that we must not only create opportunity for everyone, but also make certain that everyone has a minimum living standard deserving of all human beings.

Once James created the concept, it didn’t take American industry, led by the advertising industry, to privatize and commercial the American dream: Privatization involved making the dream a matter of an individual attaining success as opposed to society becoming just and equitable. Commercialization derived from the fact that industry defined this success solely in terms of material possessions. No wonder the media, entertainment and advertising industries have all been called the “great American dream machine.”

A perusal of the contents of the first few pages of a Google search of “the American dream” reveals that most people writing on the subject combine the public and the private versions of the American Dream.  Virtually every definition spoke of the American dream being the opportunity to work hard and achieve success.

For the most part since the Baby Boomer’s parents came home from World War II, the private part of the American dream has comprised owning a home and living a car-and-mall-centered life in the suburbs. We know the suburban dream has failed. We have created a society with a bottomless thirst for fossil fuels and a natural predilection to waste. It’s a social order that cannot be sustained over time, because of the twin demons of global warming and resource shortages.

I would assert that the suburban lifestyle isolates people and individuals, leading to a greater sense of privilege and self-satisfaction among the happy and successful, a greater sense of isolation and hopelessness among the unhappy or struggling. The privatization of the American dream has inured us to the suffering of others, so that many of us are only too willing to deny food stamps to the hungry and starve schools of funds because we send our kids to private schools or don’t have any.  By only including individual dreams and making them all the attainment of financial goals, Credit.com feeds into this isolating selfishness.

The Credit.com study ends with a few questions about who will achieve the American dream. About 78% think that they will attain their dream—be it financial security at retirement or owning their own home—but only 41% think that others will attain the American dream. I infer from these twin answers that Americans do not believe that their own success or aspirations are tied to those of others or to society as a whole.  It’s every person for him- or herself as we each pursue our individual success in isolation from everyone else.  This approach will surely work for the wealthy captain of industry, but for the 99% without wealth it is a less sure path than working together and helping each other. Remember that in Martin Luther King’s dream, we all walk together, black and white, rich and poor.

NYC mayoral debate shows news media ignorance and focus on the irrelevant

We saw what was wrong with political coverage in the last debate between the major contenders for the Democratic nominee for mayor of New York City: the media is ignorant and creates irrelevant sideshows.

The very first question by a Wall Street Journal reporter was ridiculously irrelevant to the issues: share a recent example of each candidate or candidate’s family facing economic uncertainty.  None of the five candidates could answer the question, because all are well-off and all have been enjoying good times for at least a decade, something that the reporter should have known if he had done his homework.  Was he just stupid or did he want to make a point—that these folks are mostly rich or near rich? Or maybe he was trying to trap a candidate into making up a saccharine and unbelievable sob story?

After all the candidates—a very bright bunch if you ask me—all admitted that things were going pretty well for them lately and evoked childhood or parental struggles, the panel of reporters noted that none of the candidates answered the question.  But how could they talk about struggles if they weren’t having them? And why would they? Virtually everyone with a serious chance at a major office these days is doing well. Otherwise, others wouldn’t notice their leadership skills or give money to their campaigns. Some could be struggling with family or personal issues, some may have faced financial problems in the past, but most people running for a major office, be it governor or mayor of the nation’s largest city, are at least well-off.

The question was irrelevant and may have also revealed the reporter’s ignorance.

As part of his answer to this inessential question about financial hardship, John Liu, the only candidate who appeared to be rattled throughout the proceedings, accused the Election Board of setting up two of his aides as part of a vendetta to deny him matching contributions. Instead of ignoring this desperate plea from a desperate candidate, the reporters chose to ask the other candidates if they thought Liu was set up.  Inequitable distribution of the wealth, mass transit for the outer boroughs, the controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy—these issues stayed on hold while the candidates hemmed and hawed about Liu’s irrelevant accusations.

Later in the debate, another reporter ignorantly chided the frontrunner Bill DeBlasio for saying that he would keep confidential his negotiations with the unions covering New York City workers, who have been without a contract for six years now.  Doesn’t the reporter know that it is standard practice to keep collective bargaining negotiations confidential? Confidentiality allows both sides to explore areas that could be controversial, especially if taken out of the context of a full contract. Confidentiality allows either side to make statements and then back down. It allows either side to make accusations for which they can later apologize with no loss of face on either side.

This reporter has obviously never seen any news releases about collective bargaining, most of which include a statement that the party issuing the news release won’t negotiate in public.  Now, the average person in the street hasn’t seen these news releases either, but the average person in the street is not a reporter. A reporter is supposed to know a little bit about what he or she is covering.  This reporter was trying to create a controversy around DeBlasio, but one that is irrelevant because no matter what any of the candidates may say now, every single one of them will keep the union negotiations confidential, because that’s what their lawyers will tell them to do!

The reporter should have known that. In her ignorance, she tried to create a firestorm about an irrelevancy. Again, it didn’t work, because the other candidates except Weiner all agreed they would keep negotiations confidential. The candidates focused on the more important issues of their desire to negotiate a fair contract and whether the workers would receive retroactive pay increases for the full six years.

Next day coverage of the debate boiled down analyzing how the trailing candidates ganged up on DeBlasio. To my mind, the gang-up didn’t really occur. There were short side attacks on most of the candidates, plus several of the other candidates defended DeBlasio from what they said were unfair attacks. For the media to talk about a collectively imagined gang-up rather than the real differences between the candidates sets exactly the wrong standard for election campaigning.

Ignorance and irrelevancy seem to go hand and hand when the news media frame how they will cover the issues. We often blame politicians for making purposely ignorant statements. It is hard to believe, for example, that Chris Christie really has doubts about human-caused climate disruption or that several Republican U.S. Senators really believes that Obama acts from unpatriotic motives.

But last night’s debate among five highly intelligent and mostly competent candidates showed that the news media is also to blame for the deplorable state of political discourse.

Bloody civil war in Iraq should remind us what could go wrong in Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry gave an impassioned rationale for attacking Syria. He tried to build the case for the absolute moral imperative to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons on his own people and to prevent him from doing it again.

Kerry detailed the horror of the act for the listening world. Then he promised that U.S. military actions, with or without the support of allies, would be different from Iraq and Afghanistan, because it would not require “boots on the ground.” In other words, we’re going to do a little bombing, then leave Syria to continue its dance of death.

While I join Secretary Kerry and every other ethical and sane human being alive in condemning the Syrian government for using this weapon of mass destruction, I do not share his thirst for military action.

Kerry can list many reasons to bomb Syria, including the fact al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, the fact that we warned him not to do it (another version of the “let’s kill thousands to save face” strategy) and the assumption that failure to act will embolden al-Assad and other U.S. bêtes noire like Iran and North Korea to go farther.

I can think of only one reason not to use force against al-Assad, but it trumps all of Kerry’s rationales: it will likely backfire and plunge Syria into an intensified cycle of violence between a weakened Ba’athist government and a splintered opposition that includes forces that truly despise the United States.

If you need to remind yourself what will happen in Syria, read the article titled “Bloodier than Ever” in the latest Economist. I’ll state my case my excerpting the first paragraph:

“…the scale and scope of recent attacks have shaken even the most hardened Iraqis. More than 500 have been killed in bombings this month, after some 1,000 perished violently in July—the highest number since civil strife tailed off five years ago. Yet these figures, tallied by Iraq Body Count, an independent web-based monitoring organisation, are only the most visible cause for alarm. Car-bombings and suicide-bombers have been a fact of life in central and northern Iraq for most of the past decade, but recent attacks reveal a level of co-ordination not seen for several years.”

In other words, the civil war not only continues in Iraq, but is intensifying again. Later in the article, we find out that al-Qaeda launched an attack on prisons at Abu Ghraib and Taji last month, enabling 500 prisoners to escape. Still later, we learn that the violence is spreading to the south of Iraq, formerly one of the most peaceful parts of the country.

What a mess! And the Syrian mess will be just as bloody and violent and last just as long if we bomb Syria.

Let’s face it. With or without a violent U.S. response, the Syrian people are going to go through a lot of suffering over the coming years, certainly if al-Assad prevails and certainly during a continued civil war. It’s likely that the overthrow of the Syrian Ba’athists will produce a permanently fractured state like Iraq instead of the one strong (and hopefully pro-western) government for which we might all hope. It’s also possible that Syria may end up with another blood-thirsty strong man.

Maybe the Obama administration cynically figures that since things are going to be a mess in Syria anyhow, we might as well send a message to Iran and Russia and work off some our excess weaponry, so we can buy some more from American arms manufacturers.  That Real Politik strategy would certainly be more consistent with the last 75 years of American foreign policy than the moral imperatives that Kerry evokes. That Kerry was careful to tiptoe around international law lends proof to this supposition, as the United States doesn’t want to box itself into holding any other entity above its own sense of imperial entitlement, not even international law.

Thinking about the suffering of the 1,500 people who died of chemical poisoning makes me physically ill. It was a repulsive act that deserves to be met with world condemnation, economic boycott, increased support of those rebels willing to commit to a western-style democracy and a temporary rapprochement with Iran—anything we can do to destabilize the Ba’athists in Syria short of military action.

For your reading pleasure, a poem from OpEdge author’s book

I’m going to start posting one the poems from my book, Music from Words, every few weeks and tell you something about it. My hope is that some dear readers will buy one or more copies of the book. The best place to buy Music from Words is either from the publisher, Bellday Books or from Amazon or another online book store. You can also order it at virtually all brick-and-mortar book stores.

We start with “July Fourth,” the first poem in the book. “July Fourth” was published years ago in the literary journal Oxford Review, which also nominated the poem for a Pushcart prize.  The poem repeats the name, Joe Venuti, many times. Venuti was a jazz violinist who began performing before 1920 and was still at it in the early 1970’s. If you like the OpEdge blog or this poem, please buy Music from Words.


And the three-year-old at the picnic

said she wanted to play the violin

and I said, just like Joe Venuti

and she said, you’re a Joe Venuti

and I said, you’re a Joe Venuti

and she pulled a tuft of grass and said,

here’s some Joe Venuti

and she pointed to a sparrow scratching in the dust

and said, there’s a Joe Venuti

and from a plastic bag she dumped

a bunch of Joe Venutis

and barbecue flames caressed the grilling Joe Venutis

and men threw the Joe Venuti, popping their gloves,

while women slurped the Joe Venuti and spit the seeds

and the sun played hide and seek in dissipating Joe Venutis

and through poplar branches Joe Venuti shadows danced

across the baby’s sleeping smile.


Later, like Marcus Aurelius

observing models of human behavior,

we watched the ducks glide away

after the bread was gone.

–     Marc Jampole

Originally published in Oxford Magazine, Volume 5, # 2 (Spring-Summer 1989) and Music from Words (Bellday Books, 2007).