Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Decidedly Immodest Proposal for Israeli-Palestinian Peace
Radical, but not as radical as “A Modest Proposal” of Jonathan Swift.
   Israel came into existence in 1948.  While the strife between Jewish settlements and Palestinian backlash began well before then, it is convenient to date this Middle East conflict from that date.  Sixty-six years is a long time.  And efforts to quell that dispute go back nearly that far, with the United States seriously involved as mediator, up to the level of the president.  The most recent chapter has had Secretary of State John Kerry lavish an inordinate amount of time and energy to what is euphemistically called the peace process, only to have both sides contribute to its abandonment, at least for now.
   The fact is, no solution is in sight, neither the sensible two-state one nor any other.  It is not overwhelmingly difficult for a knowledgeable third party to spell out a reasonable end-state that is reasonably fair to both sides, one that could be agreed to by reasonable leaders of both sides.  Although Israelis and Palestinians differ in culture and religion, these “deeper” divisions are not the main stumbling block on the path to a solution.  That was the case in the long strife in Northern Ireland, which thankfully, was finally resolved.  Most of the issues that divide the present adversaries might be called “pragmatic”: who gets what land, how are the settlements dealt with, what will be the role of Jerusalem and more.  The so-called right to return (sixty years later!) is a harder and more fundamental question, though I have no doubt that a reasonable solution can be devised even for this issue.  Indeed, I would guess that in the file cabinet of Martin Indyk—and of some others—can be found more than a sketch for a final solution, an expression that ought once again be allowed to take on its ordinary meaning, as the German “Endlösung” from which it derives should not be.
   “Where there’s a will, there is a way” is an old saying.  And it is often true and, I believe, it is true in this case.  What do you do when there is a lack of will—on both sides, in my view?  There are two “traditional” ways to improve the direction of a will; they are euphemistically called the carrot and the stick.  The carrot has been implicitly (and probably explicitly) in operation in all the negotiations sponsored by the United States.  It is my firm belief that it is time for the stick.
   I will now propose a scheme by which the stick should be wielded, though it should be understood that what I will put forward is only a scheme, a conceptual model; I am far too ignorant of the relevant circumstances to put forward an actual plan.  I have no fear, however, that you, dear reader, will get the idea.
   The immodest proposal rests on the assumption that the United States provides substantial aid both to Israel and to the Palestinians.  Big bucks, I am certain.  Further, it assumes that an outline of a proposed final solution can be taken out of Mr. Indyk’s file cabinet and that it can be made public.  This document should be given to the negotiators and their bosses, as a starting point for them to make the changes that both sides can agree on.  Others will know better whether a “neutral” third person, presumably American, should be present during some or all of the discussion; I suspect that the answer to that is “yes.”
   Now for the wrinkle, the stick.  If an agreement is reached at the end of six months: bravo!  If that is not the case, American aid to both sides will be reduced by 15% from what it was during the last full year.  If not after another four months, aid goes down by another 15% and so after another four months and yet again for two more four month periods.  That takes us to 22 months of unsuccessful talking, with only 25% of the last full-aid year remaining.  After that the two sides should be left to stew until they see the light.

   I realize this is a big stick and that it will cause a mega-sized ruckus.  It will alienate the vast majority of Jewish voters, though there are some, like me, who will applaud.  But President Obama will not run for office during or at the end of this period of coercion and the 2016 presidential candidates of both parties can repudiate this scheme and rightly say they had no say in the matter.  Whether the scheme is successful or not, history will celebrate Mr. Obama if it works or it will give him high marks for trying.  Going on for the next couple of decades the way the last have gone should not be an option.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

In Praise of Anonymous Inventors*

   Until fairly recently, if you wanted to get some ketchup out of the bottle onto your hamburger, you shook the bottle, banged on its bottom and hoped that the result would fall somewhere between nothing coming out and a huge red splash that practically obliterates its target.  No more.  Someone had the wit to realize that the bottom of the bottle did not have to be on the bottom when it stood on the table.  So, if correctly stored, that red stuff is at the ready and will flow out just to the degree desired.
   And so with bottles of a shampoo, sparing struggles in the shower, and no doubt with bottles of many other viscous substances that I know nothing about.  From bottles this invention—for that is surely what it is—has also traveled to tubes.   No longer do I have to shake and squeeze when I use regenerating cream for my skin; the stuff is there to plop out.  And so on.  Once thunk up, the idea can be and has been endlessly adopted.
    My sudden appreciation of the upside down tube led me to realize that our world is full of devices we could not live without that are contrivances brought into the world by Mr. Anonymous.  Prometheus gave us fire; but who invented the wheel?  We say rather contemptuously, “don’t invent the wheel all over again.”  Makes sense if taken literally; the wheel, after all, already exists.  But it’s all wrong if the advice is not to invent something of the magnitude of the wheel.  Don’t just imagine what a wheel-less world would be like in the 21st century, but mentally remove wheels from 15th-century Florence or from Caesar’s Rome and realize how primitive would be what remains.
   Fire and the wheel are biggies.  But there are plenty of other anonymous inventions that have had a huge impact on how we live and work.  Think of the many crafts that crucially depend on the saw.  Rather than cutting all kinds of material with a sharp but smooth edge or splitting with force, cutting with sharpened jagged teeth makes severing easier, more accurate, and in some cases possible at all. 
   Think of a world without knots that can fasten one rope-like cord to another or to a solid object like an anchor.  Somebody had to figure out how to do this sufficiently securely so that you could rely on its holding under various kinds of stress.  A version of a knot is also required to secure a belt, a more important contraption than one might first think, since belts do much more than just hold up our pants.
   I invite readers to make their own contributions to this roster in praise of unknown inventors.  If you let your mind roam, you will think of many examples.  But I want now to conclude with what has long been a favorite of mine: the safety pin.  Who, I wonder, first thought of bending a pin into the shape of a horseshoe and then securing the sharp end in a small sleeve.  What results is a case of having your cake and eating it too: the safety pin offers most of the advantages of that sharp tip and spares us of most of the nuisance it can cause.
   So, under the heading of “comment” below, please go to it and make your own addition, signing with your name or with an amusing pseudonym.
   *Note I have done no research for this mini-disquisition—I did not even go to Wikipedia.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Rudy Buys Bourbon

I leave the house where I am living on Atlanta Street

Since it was a sunny day, I decided to take my camera with me so as to take snap shots of some of the very many patches of cultivated greenery on the way.  I made only a very small detour to capture bits of a tiny park, a block away from the straight road to my destination.  Some of those pictures will now follow.  But note, since I have not mastered the art of placement, they will simply be strung out, one after the other.  Indeed, if it were not for my computer-savvy granddaughter Eva, the pictures would not have made it into this post at all.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Postscript to Capital Punishment: Now and in the Future

   The papers and the internet are full of comments, mostly—but not all!—indignant, about the “botched execution” in Omaha.  And justifiably so.  Most seem to agree that what happened violated the constitutional proscription of cruel and unusual punishment.  And so it certainly seems.  Opponents of the death penalty, of which I am one, are correctly pointing to this case as the latest example that you can never get it right.  Much has been tried: hanging, firing squad, guillotine, electric chair, injections of drugs.  All have been found wanting.  The Omaha case is not the first “unsuccessful” drug-induced execution, so that it is only the latest unsuccessful attempt to get those executions right. 
     Lot’s of people are upset about these events.  But I am doubtful that this horror has persuaded many to change their basic views and  come to oppose the death penalty altogether.  Do a better job solving the problem is the American, the pragmatic injunction.  Still, one hopes that there will be some who see that it can never be done right.  Much has been written about the mechanics of execution; not much has been said about the mental torture of knowing that tomorrow I will be put to death.
   Opponents of capital punishment will certainly welcome negative votes motivated by this impossibility of getting it right whenever a vote for or against the death penalty is called for  But it should not be forgotten that there are still deeper moral reasons why even the state—or should I say, especially the state—should not take the life of a human being.  The Sixth Commandment does not allow for exceptions.