The Scorpion and the Turtle

“I’d prefer not to deal with this issue at all,” said the Vlad the Animal Farmer.  “It’s like shearing a pig—too much squeaking, too little wool”

Nonetheless, the Russian President issued a residence permit to this “unwanted Christmas present” named Edward Snowden.  It will give Vlad the Fixer a year to formulate, “the smartest solution to this complicated international problem.”  It may be on par with the one he offered the Patriots football owner who claimed Vlad the Impaler pocketed his Super Bowl Ring after quipping that, “I can kill someone with this ring.”  Vlad the Snarkster shrugged and offered a “superior replacement that can be passed from generation to generation,” or roughly the time Snowden can expect to remain in jail if he’s ever returned to the U.S.

Further compromising information will likely be exacted by FSB, the state security apparatus which succeeded KGB, Putin’s Soviet Russian leadership academy.  Snowden’s status will surely be leveraged in the future by Putin the Pragmatic.  In the meantime, Snowden can re-assume his on-line handle, TheTrueHooha, and accept a job like the one offered to join the “all-star security team” of Vkontakte, the Russian Facebook.  Krasavitsas are already queuing up to help him forget his pole-dancing girlfriend.  In your face Uncle Sam.

“The Snowden leaks have the potential, if not already the reality, to be the single most destructive leak of American security information in our history,” declared General Michael Hayden, former Director of NSA then CIA.  Some nine years ago, I attended a Ft. Meade symposium briefed by Hayden.  (He was followed by his former NSA SIGINT director, Mo Baginski who had already admonished a senior Snowden precursor named Thomas Drake to silence his whistle).  Hayden came to NSA in 1999 when the acronym, otherwise known as No Such Agency, was less indicative of secretiveness than dysfunction.  Within his first year, the computer system crashed for nearly four days.  Hayden set out not only to overhaul and elevate its operations but to give NSA an outward-looking face-lift.

Hayden has the look of a bespectacled accounting professor.  His globe head could well have been the model for T-Top, the cartoon turtle at CryptoKids®, the adolescent outreach section he launched on NSA’s web-site.  With his beguiling intellect and commanding, yet matter-of-fact presentation, Hayden can engage a room of 3,000 “semi-reformed hackers,” as he did at the BlackHat 2010 cybersecurity conference.  Rising above geek speak, he exhorted them to go Big Idea: “God made the domains of land, sea, air, and space, but you guys made cyber.  And you messed it up…. You made your world look like the North German plane and then you bitch and moan because you get invaded.”  While the cyber domain is primed for exploitation and offense, it is, in effect, virtually defenseless at this stage of development. ‘What are you going to do about it?’ Hayden challenges his audiences.

With the outing of PRISM and XKeyscore, USCYBERCOM stands betrayed by the very CryptoKids NSA cultivated then recruited.  “He certainly has done a very, very bad thing,” Hayden scolds, “and I think he is also a very troubled young man.”  Note that the general is careful to distinguish, with part avuncular indulgence, part cunning: this young, troubled Snowden does not meet “the legal definition of being a ‘traitor’ according to our Constitution.”  Hayden realizes that, while this talent pool comes with poison pill values, NSA can’t function without them.  “In American society, as in Russian society, we have a generation of young folks (who have) a kind of absolute commitment to transparency,” Hayden lamented in an eye-raising interview with Russian television, ‘RT’.  “An almost romantic attachment to revealing secrets.”

Isn’t the actual nature of secrets Snowden revealed more like suspicions confirmed?  PRISM/XKeyscore stands on stark display in the busy, Wham!/Bam! cut&paste power points often favored by DOD, graphic evidence of breaking and entering 4th Amendment rights, aided and imbedded by tech icons.  But how shocked or disturbed is populace fed surveillance omniscience via Bourne Identification of Criminal Minds?  Clear majorities of those (Pew) polled see Snowden as whistleblower, believe the government uses data for purposes other than investigating terrorism, yet support the data-collection program.

Just as 2nd Amenders dominate the gun debate, at this point, 4th Amenders have the upper hand in getting Big Brother’s hands off Big Data.  When Hayden bemoans the exposed plumbing, his greatest concern is the monkey wrench thrown at private sector cooperation. One estimate has U.S. cloud computing providers losing $35B in business over the next three years thanks to PRISM while prospects for NSA’s aspiring ‘Star Wars’ cyber defense is threatened by Congressional storm clouds. This is problematic.  Cyberattacks on infrastructure or financial markets can, potentially wreak far more havoc than the couple dozen terrorist plots purportedly pre-empted by NSA data mining.

The computer malware worm known as Stuxnet that crippled an Iranian nuclear fuel enrichment plant three years ago was identified by a lean, young Belarussian who looks like he could be Snowden’s cousin.  His analysis has Stuxnet invading via an infected USB stick, doing a so-called “zero-day” denial of control and denial of view, akin to feeding unsuspicious footage into a surveillance camera.  It “root kits” and lurks undetected for an extended period of time as it undermines programmable logic controllers (PLC) of the supervisory-control-and-data-acquisition (SCADA) system.  Security consultants who focus on vulnerabilities of the pervasive PLCs have taken concerns down the line from power grids to pipelines to water systems and, ominously, the controls in correctional facilities like the pneumatic prison sliding door.

There are so many scenarios vying for our fear that it is tough to gauge levels of response and readiness.  Then there are all the public fear mongers who, for personal aggrandizement, distract us from our most palpable threats.  For all their preoccupation with the Constitution, Americans widely ignore their physical constitution (cue Rush & Newt).  The U.S. expends more than $500 million per victim on anti-terrorism and $10,000 per victim on cancer research.

Until statistician Nate ‘538’ Silver is enlisted to develop an actuarial algorithm app that delineates the likelihood of actual threats, folks might exercise precautionary measures to keep fears from becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.  Don’t search for pressure cookers and backpacks simultaneously on line and cook your quinoa in a Dutch oven.  Though you might subscribe to the premise that enemy of your enemy is your friend, you will want to give due consideration to whom you would want in a fox-hole with you.  If your choice is between Rand Paul and Michael Hayden, read the fable of the Scorpion and the Turtle first.

The Bell is Tolling

A post-Sandy bike ride down the buckled and duneless Ocean Parkway, clued me to the new abnormal. Not only will the ocean have its destructive way but so will its swollen sister waterways.

It’s personal now.  We’re the proverbial canaries in a coal mine, perched down here on a barrier beach.  We’ve been watching sea level rise and beach erosion for some time now.   Sandy just blew the sand dunes between Gilgo and West Gilgo Beach flat out into Ocean Parkway. The Atlantic is now licking the side of the exposed, buckled roadway, giving it a taste of unobstructed ocean surge on to Long Island’s ‘mainland’.  

The surge from Great South Bay left behind hundreds of millions in damages in South Shore communities like Babylon Village where our twins go to school.  Considering that 22mi West down the coast at Breezy Point 110 houses burned down, things could’ve been way worse for us.  “Never send to ask for whom the bell tolls,” Donne wrote.  “It tolls for thee.”

I’m a sustainability director living unsustainably on a spit of sand between ocean and bay.  Just driving our small, efficient cars to the mainland requires an extra 400 gallons of gas yearly between me and my wife.  That adds almost 15% to our carbon footprint if, as I estimated five years ago, we, like average Long Islanders, emit 13.67t CO2/yr, or double the reported footprint of our neighbors in the city.   

I was born in the city overlooking the East River and grew up with a view of the Hudson.  Like many, I’ve always needed to be by a body of water.  I had lived in cities most of my life, before moving with my young family to the barrier beach where I had summered since I was a kid.  I particularly relish the quiet isolation of the off-season, the big sky that goes on forever offering world-class sunsets behind the Manhattan skyline. 

An environmental purist in Papa Cuomo’s administration proposed banishing all residents from our barrier beaches rather than extend leases a couple of decades back.  Barrier beaches should be for ‘passive recreation’, permitting drive-by viewing only, no parking or beach-going.  A half-dozen years ago a Babylon Town emergency responder made a comparable rumbling when I came across him taking measure of beach depth and littoral drift.  

This encounter inspired “Barrier,” a tale about a 10yr-old, budding naturalist living on a barrier beach who makes the acquaintance of a grumpy environmental engineer and they debate the natural order of things.  Who will replace the grump if no one has been brought up caring about this place, the 10yr-old wonders?  Philosophical barriers break down over time as each comes to learn from the other.  Then, late one summer, a category 3 hurricane compels them to depend on one another.

We just witnessed a variation on this theme as the lean one joined hands with the mean one to reach out to all those devastated by Sandy in Jersey.  “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight,” Samuel Johnson reminds us, “it concentrates the mind wonderfully.”  Having slipped the noose this time around, I am left to reassess assumptions I had drawn from decades on the water’s edge.

We now know that 900 mile-wide Sandy is the largest Atlantic storm in recorded history fueled by unprecedented late-season ocean-expanding warmth (+5°F) augmented by elevated levels of atmospheric moisture which was driven into a most unusual left turn by a “3-sigma” blocking high over Greenland following the largest Arctic sea ice melt in human history.   Having seen decades of hurricanes spin up the 45° Jersey coast and head East I didn’t, frankly, buy that one would take a ‘louie’ and head West into New York harbor.  I can be excused for having gotten one part of the puzzle wrong as conditions have changed radically.  

The other part I now know to be misguided is my worst case scenario. In advance of hurricanes, folks always offer shelter on the mainland and once it’s blown through, they’re the ones with  the damage while we escape dry and unscathed.  So I’ve remained, as I did through Sandy, based upon the calculus that I wasn’t going to die, given my house of cinder block walls connected with steel I-beams and cross-hatched with 3”x14” old-cut redwood  beams.

A post-Sandy bike ride down the buckled and duneless Ocean Parkway, clued me to the new abnormal.  Not only will the ocean have its destructive way but so will its swollen sister waterways.  No one in proximity of water is safe.  Look at the Long Island Sound invasion of King’s Point.  Look at the inundation of Hoboken well North of the New York Harbor on the Hudson. 

It was remnants of the old Coast Guard Station Gilgo emerging from the depths of swept sand that presented a most apt epitaph for this new Frankenstorm.  Once a mighty turreted brick castle by the sea, its skeletal foundation evoked Shelley’s lines:

 

“My name is Ozmandius, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing besides remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

A climate activist called out at a Romney rally recently and was booed and drowned out by chants of “USA! USA!”  You think anyone was shouting this chant at Sandy as she bore down on the Jersey Shore?  Deny it, debate it, delude yourselves, but know this from someone who has been ringside at ground zero here on the barrier beach for 55yrs.  The ocean is invading your shores, America, more certainly than any other threat you may choose to distract yourselves with.  Forty some odd years ago, two commercials told us all we need to know: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” and “You can pay  now or you can pay later.”

All photos by Dorian Dale. Top photo: Foundation rubble from the old Gilgo Coast Guard Station

Two Glorious Failures

George and Stan were born a few months apart in 1922 only to die a few days apart some ninety years later.  Both distinguished themselves after emerging from inauspicious upbringings, George in Avon, SD and Stan in Akron, OH.  Though they were widely admired, neither grabbed the big, brass ring atop their notable achievements.  Less noteworthy were the two times they met this writer, once as their stars were on the rise and, 35 years later, when they were setting.

George McGovern was one of a half-dozen senators I interviewed in March of 1968 for my senior thesis on The Congressional Role in Determination of U.S. Policy in Indochina since 1945.  Rocked by the one-two punch in early ’68 – the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive and the surprisingly strong challenge of Sen. Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary – President Lyndon Johnson was about to shock the country on the final day of March by announcing that he would not stand for reelection. 

A highly decorated WWII bomber pilot, McGovern had 35 B-24 missions under his belt when he stepped on to the Senate floor in 1963 as a freshman to question America’s role in Vietnam. He did not, however, vote along with the two sole dissenters, Morse and Gruening, against the Tonkin Bay Resolution because, he told me, he did not believe that it gave LBJ a blank check to escalate the war in Vietnam.  And he did not join Morse and others in voting to defund the war, until sponsoring such legislation in 1971. 

I asked McGovern in his Senate office on March 27, “Why do you think McCarthy took up the fight against Johnson?”

Speaking in a slow drawl flat as the High Plains, his upper lip perpetually drawn above his teeth as if wincing, McGovern recounted how the Dump Johnson organizers had first approached him after Bobby Kennedy declined to take up the challenge.  “But I didn’t think LBJ could be ousted, and I was up for re-election, so I sent them down to see Gene.”  The Minnesota Senator’s 42% showing against the sitting President’s 49.6% in the ‘Live Free or Die’ state on March12 shook things up big time.  Four days later an opportunistic RFK finally jumped into the race.    

But it proved no easy task to shake McCarthy and his dedicated supporters, like myself.  In late May, I booked out of high school for Oregon to catch McCarthy’s 44% to 38% primary win over Kennedy.  RFK was assassinated a week later right after claiming victory in California.  Even though McCarthy commanded a 39%-31% lead over Kennedy in total primary results, incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey, with meager 2% of the votes, racked up the vast majority of delegates from non-primary states.

Two weeks before the tumultuous ’68 Chicago convention, McGovern stepped into the mix, claiming the mantle of Kennedy supporters in a last ditch effort to purportedly head off Humphrey’s nomination.  The only upshot of this move was to tick off McCarthy supporters like myself.  When he ran as the Democratic nominee against President Richard Nixon in ‘72, I expressed my on-going ire by voting for Baby Doctor Benjamin Spock.  It hardly mattered; McGovern suffered the second worst drubbing in history.

Stanford Ovshinsky, father of photovoltaic solar panels and hybrid car batteries, liked to say that “the periodic table is my tool box….  I know how to put elements together so they respond to one another to get new mechanisms, new phenomenon.  I see patterns where others see a maze.”  The 1950’s semiconductor world of crystalline structures based on a rigid latticework of atoms was counterintuitive to Ovshinsky.  He charged thin films of amorphous materials which instantaneously reconfigured into semi-crystalline forms capable of carrying significant current at a fraction of the cost of conventional semiconductors. 

I asked Ovshinsky in 1976 about a biometric device that some colleagues and I were developing for autonomic conditioning.  Employing a cholesteric rather than nematic liquid crystal of the kind more commonly used in pocket calculator displays was, indeed, the way to go he observed.  He graciously agreed to be referenced on the principle that thermotropic characteristics of liquid crystals could display actionable feedback of vasodilation/constriction in mitigating migraines. 

Our paths crossed once again in 2007 at New York Institute of Technology which presented Ovshinsky that school’s first Leadership in Sustainable Technology Award.  The genius inventor without the college degree told the collegians to “never stop going to your own school.”  Sharing knowledge was a driving impulse for Stan, and NYIT’s Solar Decathletes were at the receiving end.  Strip the carbon out of hydrocarbon, said the self-taught, practical tinkerer, and go straight to the pure hydrogen burn by developing mechanisms to first solidify then liquefy this 100% clean fuel.

Not everyone was so smitten with Ovshinsky.  In one of its characteristic hatchet jobs, Forbes called him “the puppetmaster of this long-running farce” whose company, Energy Conversion Devices, “may deserve a place in the Guinness Book of World Records” for losing money in 36 of its 40 publicly-traded years.  Never mind all the joint ventures with the likes of GM, Intel, Chevron and Canon licensing many of his 400 U.S. and 800 international patents which generated hundreds of millions; Ovshinsky never really saw cash infusions as anything more than a lifeline for compelling science.  Just months before his passing, Stan Ovshinsky’s company filed for bankruptcy after over a half-century of innovation that enriched the rest of us. 

George McGovern wasn’t much of a businessman either.  After my family and I crisscrossed Big Sky country back in ’03, we stopped in at McGovern’s in the Bitter Root Valley.  Nominally a bookstore, it was really more of an archival homage to his public service .  Lunching at a nearby pub, I asked George about his bed & breakfast which went belly-up, but I didn’t ask him to compare and contrast with running the United States of America.   I did ask how a non-combatant like Nixon got away with tarring a war hero like McGovern with chicken feathers. 

“The problem with guys like Nixon and Reagan and Bush is they got it wrong,” George responded.  “They are soft-minded and tough-hearted when you need to be the other way around.”

Spy v. Spy

Videotaping would be “subject to too much scrutiny in court,” one DIA officer suggested in Thailand and CIA counsel concurred: “Even totally legal techniques will look ugly.”

Twenty minutes into the interview, listening to rationales for torture euphemistically branded ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (EIT), 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl put on her schoolmarm scold: “This is Orwellian stuff.  The United States doesn’t do that.”

José Rodriguez, the former Deputy Director/Operations CIA, clenched his jaw offering the pugnacious look of a Latin Ray Kelly and retorted, “Well, we do!”

Of course we do.  Any bleeding-heart ACLU type, including the Inspector General of the CIA, who takes exception, should know that Rodriguez doesn’t give “a rat’s ass.”  And neither do ‘tough-tawkin,’ real Americans who, like 24hrs devotees in the Bush-Cheney White House, are in thrall to visions of agent Jack Bauer  tracking down the “ticking time bomb” before it is too late.  It is a variation of the Nam-era battle cry, “Kill ‘Em All – Let God Sort Out the Innocent,” variously called The One Percent Doctrine or the Mosaic Theory.   

In 2002, when a high-value detainee (HVD) named Abu Zubaydah was captured during a firefight in Pakistan, he was, as Rodriguez stated, taken to a “black site,” so that “we could elicit intelligence.”  Code-named ‘Cat’s Eye,’ the site was a disused warehouse, in proximity to a SIGINT complex, just off Udon Royal Thai Air Force base, in northeastern Thailand.  The US Air Force based out of this location during the Vietnam War, as did CIA proprietary, Air America.

The American epitaph in Vietnam is an iconic 1975 photo depicting the scramble for the last helicopter out of Saigon.  Evacuees are clambering up a ladder to the roof of an apartment building serving as a makeshift landing pad for an Air America UH-1 Huey.  As the chopper lifted off, leaving behind thousands of desperate Vietnamese US-proxies to the advancing North Vietnamese Army (NVA), CIA officer Frank Snepp watched.  The mayhem had manifested in the most personal way, as his Miss Saigon, thinking herself abandoned by him, had just killed herself along with the child she claimed was his. 

Snepp was awarded the Intelligence Medal of Merit by D/CIA at the end of ’75, in part for his analysis laying out the collapse, but also for his interrogation of one HVD.  In late ‘72, 29yrs-old Snepp was dispatched by Langley HQ to Station in Saigon to conduct the interrogation of Nguyen Tai, an NVA colonel characterized as “one of the most hostile counterintelligence prisoners ever to fall in allied hands.”  Snepp came on the heels of other interrogators, including the South Vietnamese who used electric shocks, clubs, all manner of privation, waterboarding and “Chinese Water Torture.”  

For a field officer whose first assignment in ’69 had been profiling targets for strike teams in the notorious Phoenix Program, harsh interrogation may have seemed tame fair indeed.  For Snepp’s stint at interrogating, conditions were tempered to an all-white cell, brightly lit 24/7 with maxed-out air-conditioning, as Tai, like many Vietnamese, thought cooling poisonous. But if “interrogation is a hunt for the game of the human mind,” Tai’s revelations yielded small quarry, as he was convinced cooperation would spell his demise once all of Vietnam fell to his comrades. 

For Snepp “our handling of the evacuation was an institutional disgrace” so he set down all its hairy details in “Decent Interval”, published without clearance from CIA’s Publications Review Board.  He suffered the consequences.  When I ran into Snepp in Manhattan in the early ‘80s, all his royalties had been clawed back.   He was a remote figure, estranged from almost everyone, his moral outrage muted.

No such fate awaits José Rodriguez for publishing “Hard Measures” which touts EIT and boasts of destroying 92 tapes of the EIT of Abu Zubaydah.  “We needed to get everybody in government to put their big boy pants on and provide the authorities that we needed,” Rodriguez told 60 Minutes.  “I had had a lot of experience in the agency where we had been left to hold the bag.  And I was not about to let that happen for the people that work for me.” 

Rodriguez got to look out for his people, Snepp did not.  But what was the real tale of the tapes?  For one thing Zubaydah was a guinea pig, Rodriguez testified, and EIT was very much a questionable work in progress.  But videotaping would be “subject to too much scrutiny in court,” one DIA officer suggested in Thailand and CIA counsel concurred: “Even totally legal techniques will look ugly.”  But maybe the tapes revealed that EIT simply didn’t deliver as claimed. Maybe EIT is less about information and more about messaging to what depth of hopelessness captured terrorists will be reduced. 

The FBI’s Arabic-speaking lead interrogator, Ali Soufan, like Snepp, favored “informed interrogation technique” that involves “engaging and outwitting” the subject into believing more is known than actually is, thus providing that delta of actionable intelligence.  He believes “people in Washington rewrote the results” to give undue credit to EIT; Zubaydah gave up dirty nuke wannabe Jose Padilla prior to his 83 waterboardings, says Soufan, as well as identifying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) as the mastermind of 9/11.  

Though KSM was waterboarded 183 times, Leslie Stahl pointed out that, “you really didn’t break him…. He didn’t tell you about Osama bin Laden.”  Rodriguez did a rare retreat: “there is a limit to what they will tell us….  That was the one secret he was going to take to the grave, and that was the protection of the Sheikh.”  So much for EIT leading to the ticking time bomb.

Cofer Black, a classmate of Rodriguez’s from the Farm and his predecessor at CIA/CTC, famously proclaimed that he was going to bring back Osama bin Laden’s head on a stick with flies walking across his eyeballs.  Mission Unaccomplished, Cofer now serves on Team Romney as their Black Ops, flies-on-the-eyeballs guy.  His Sancho Panza goes on 60 Minutes to lay claim for the ultimate reckoning of bin Laden, followed two weeks later by a fawning interview of another high-ranking Black acolyte, Hank Crumpton.  

What kind of domestic psyops are in the offing here?  This Spy v Spy tradecraft debate between Manchurian Candidate and Machiavelli presents a classic divide writ large: the distinction between uncertainty, a law of physics, and certainty, an article of faith.  The Company Man v the mission minded; the morally righteous v the morally outraged.

 

Photos: (Top) Frank Snepp, (Bottom) Jose Rodriguez

Ain’t Necessarily So

Religion addresses a human yearning to fathom our place in an unfathomable universe and to immortalize our earthly mortality.

Words from de Bible
Dey turns into libel
Ain’t necessarily so!

-with apologies to Ira Gershwin

Oft time the Good Book is used to evil ends.  The Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witchcraft Trials are iconic examples.  Then there is the more insidious evil spread by False Prophets Jesus warned us about: those  who “come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves.” -Mattthew 7:15

False Prophets have been spreading like locusts in grandiose displays of holier than thou.  They preach with absolute moral certainty that brooks no differences with their agenda.  Some, willfully and for pecuniary reasons, do their bible-beating so that folks “will betray and hate each other.” –Matthew 24:10.  Others may not be so much in touch with their inner wolf as they raven self-serving passages from the Good Book while ignoring others.  Still others may simply be regurgitating what they themselves have been spoon-fed.

However one feels about the Tim Tebow phenomenon, his psyche is infectious.  Tebowing and eye-black billboarding of biblical passages like John 3:16 have evangelized  millions that belief in Him means “ever lasting life.”  Note, however, what scripture has not made it on to Tebow’s eye-black: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on street corners to be seen by men.” -Matthew 6:5

Pro ball players and coaches regularly thank God for victory.  Seldom, if ever, do we hear them ask for Divine guidance in the wake of defeat.  Jeremy Lin kind of went there as he announced his knee was going under the knife.  While his coach grudgingly felt Jeremy could tough it out, Lin mused that, “He has a plan.”  Coach couldn’t argue with that Big Commissioner in the sky.

A number of Founding Fathers who were, reputedly, Deists did not subscribe to the premise that everything happens for a reason, according to Divine plan.  Ours is a set-and-forget world, one spec of many in a universe produced by Creation or the Big Bang, as secular science would have it.  God does not micromanage.  He does not intercede to safely land a prop plane with a 60yrs-old in cardiac arrest then retreat when Timothy McVey blows up toddlers.  A cauldron of randomness, chaos and chance mix in a chain reaction that sometimes produces a semblance of order even when that order is terrifying. 

Religion addresses a human yearning to fathom our place in an unfathomable universe and to immortalize our earthly mortality.  Not a few feel that it is all so much whistling as we go by the graveyard.  But even non-believers may be inclined to hedge their bets.  On being caught, late in life, reading the bible, WC Fields, a renowned atheist, explained in his inimitable twang that he was, “just looking for loopholes, looking for loopholes!”

A couple of years back I was invited by a Mormon neighbor for whom I have considerable respect to listen to a missionary appeal ministered by Elder Elliot and Elder Joseph, both 21.  My knowledge of Mormonism was pretty sketchy so I was intrigued to hear that the Book of Mormon, as received by Joseph Smith, had, ostensibly, been inscribed on thin tablet-shaped gold plates and delivered by an angel.  Like the tablets etched with Ten Commandments by the Lord then shattered in a fury by Moses, no tangible evidence remains for posterity of the gold plates, though Eight Witnesses attested to their existence.

In addition to my wife and I, high holy day Episcopals, the group being missioned to included a Fundamentalist Christian and a medium of some Protestant persuasion.  The Fundamentalist, being of ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ faith, declared that those not embracing Jesus, according to select criteria, would not gain entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.  Figuring that the All-Knowing would know who had been naughty or nice, regardless of religious affiliation on earth, I asked, “What then might be the eternal fate of Gandhi, a Hindu who led his people from privation into freedom.

“We don’t know if Gandhi had a death-bed conversion,” the Fundamentalist responded evasively.  As it so happens, the Mormons have been magnanimously providing visas to Heaven by posthumous proxy baptism for non-Mormons like Anne Frank.  Relatives of  Holocaust victims who are, after all the Chosen People, have not been placated by the proposition that this may be a sort of insurance policy, just in case Divine Rights have been exclusively bestowed on some other religious order. 

Focus on the Family’s highly charged socio-politicizing has included the Tim Tebow “miracle baby” commercial in Super Bowl XLIV.  After the Janet Jackson ‘wardrobe malfunction’ during Super Bowl XXXVIII, I wrote Focus complaining that every other commercial was for a sex drug like Viagra.  How was I supposed to explain the chronically repeated (wink, wink) ’48hrs erection’ to my 8yrs-old daughter or expect her to ‘just say no’ to sex as a teen with non-stop TV images of lusting adults?   Focus has declined to focus on Big Pharma, perhaps because Pharma must have gotten Big thanks to Him.  Focus has not felt comparably constrained in going after environmentalists who they deem vanguards of the Godless World Order (see www.ResistingtheGreenDragon.com). 

Patrick, “Give Me Liberty of Give Me Death,” Henry introduced a bill in 1784 calling for state support for “teachers of the Christian religion.”  It was resoundingly rejected and instead the Founding Fathers bequeathed us the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  As they seek to conflate their church and state while shilling for ideological agendas and vested economic interests, maybe it’s time to categorize False Prophets as For-Profits and tax them accordingly.  The country could use the revenues. 

 

Main Photo: Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Albrecht Dürer

Ides of Ramadan

Dorian Dale further contemplates conflict with Iran and imagines the screenplay that might ultimately find its way to the Silver Screen. (Inspired by real and potentially real events. Bonus points if you can identify the mystery couple.)

Coming Soon to a Theater of War Near You!

In his day job, he thinks the unthinkable
in terms of nuclear conflict.
She focuses on nuclear forensics so that,
when the unthinkable occurs, it can be sourced. 
It’s not a matter of if…. It’s a matter of when.

INT PAN: Pews in National Cathedral, Washington, DC, last Saturday in May.

WIDE SHOT FROM FIFTH PEW: Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, sporting a Cee Lo Green-sized cross, presides over nuptials of handsome young couple.

CUT TO SIXTH PEW, POV PARTIALLY BLOCKED:  Sam Elliot, looking all Foggy Bottom in his chargé d’affaire seersucker suit, whispers to Ryan Gosling, in conventional, slim black Armani: “Here we are close enough to the wedding party to seem like we’re invited guests – Rule #43, Wedding Crashers.”

CUT TO AERIAL SHOT: Conga-line of stretch limos heads SE on Massachusetts Ave in the direction of DuPont Circle.  It’s high noon, balmy & sunny.

ZOOM TO HIGH-ANGLE:  Just before the Iraqi Embassy, motorcyclist drives slowly down meridian, passenger appearing to touch limos as they pass and then take a quick left up 35th St.

CUT TO WIDE SHOT EXT: Limos arriving at beaux arts mansion housing Cosmos Club.

CUT TO SHOULDER-MOUNTED POV PANS: Elliot leads Gosling on head-spinning tour of Who’s Who wedding reception, starting in the patio garden where chic geeks are hanging with DC artistes and water polo teammates from the bride’s college days.  Maroon 5 is covering “99 Luftballons.”

CLOSE-UP: Karl Lagerfield of the equine pony-tail, egret-white against black suit, blackout shades and SS-issue black leather gloves holds court über alle surrounded by Capitol Movement dance troupe peacocking for a runway assignment from the great fashion designer. To the side, water polo players are trolling for modeling tips from the groom’s brother, former #1 in Lagerfield’s stable back in the designer’s Brokeback Mountain stage. Instead, they hear of his goal to be another Donald Trump.

CUT TO BIRD’S EYE: Groom, glancing furtively around, places envelope on wedding cake. The hyper-ambitious millennial groom is not quite super-model material but has been mistaken for Jude Law’s younger brother on more than one occasion. His quant skills have persuaded his moderately wealthy, newly minted father-in-law that footing the bill for a reception at DC’s venerable Cosmos Club provides value-added for attracting Beltway investors. In actuality, it is the exotically beautiful bride with the look of Gisele Bundchen’s younger sister who has persuaded daddy, but Judebro is never loath to take credit.

Judebro and Giselsis are comers in the firmament of geopolitical influence, his status affirmed by the recent publication of “Time to Attack Iran” in Foreign Affairs. In his day job, he thinks the unthinkable in terms of nuclear conflict. She focuses on nuclear forensics so that, when the unthinkable occurs, it can be sourced. It’s not a matter of whether nukes will be used, but when. Proliferation think tankers feed off this self-fulfilling prophecy. To answer how 20-something novices are positioned to weigh in on Prometheus Unbound, look to powerful patrons that make Washington the land of opportunistic oracles.

Think tanking is but one driver of conflict with Iran that has not seen the light in Gosling’s Manichaean world view. The indie media mini-mogul is consumed with an octopus of global oil manipulation—Morgan Stanley—who, by his reckoning, would foment armed conflict to profit from wild upward spirals of world crude prices.

ELLIOT: “Traders, as Trading Places reminds us, Gosling, are but bookies who profit whether the price goes up or down. Note that even a comprehensive command of applied chaos theory catches on the interconnections of string theory.”

CUT TO UPSTAIRS BALL-ROOM: Older, decidedly less hip crowd. Martina McBride is countrifying “Wooden Ships.”

GOSLING: “Who’s that wagging his finger at the balding, bearded guy and his bevy of boobalaheads?

ELLIOT: “That’s Valerie Plame’s hubby, going all Sean Penn on the self-styled Darth Vader of neo-cons who suckered Bush into featuring Saddam’s (non) purchase of yellow cake uranium in the 2003 State of the Union. And that blonde bombshell over there…”

PAN TO: Threesome clustered around bombshell.

ELLIOT: “Valerie Plame, if that really is her name.”

GOSLING: “So that’s the outed CIA op? Think I’d rather go under cover with Naomi Watts.”

CUT TO CLOSE UP: Bombshell Plame is disarming a DOE physicist, resembling Renee Zellweger with a dust-mop do, a world-weary defense analyst—picture Gary Oldman going DIA with LeCarré’s Smiley—and Judebro’s PhD thesis advisor from UC Berkeley who could be Dr. House’s alter-ego.

PLAME: “There have been at least 25 incidents of lost or stolen nuclear explosive material we know of.”

ZELLWEGER: “That’s why the personal dosimeter card I designed can be so critical in an event.”

PLAME: “Though Cold War arsenals have been reduced from 70,000 to 23,000, there remains enough highly enriched uranium to build more than 100,000 weapons. Counter-proliferation was my beat; there’s no graver threat than nuclear terrorism. We must go for Global Zero nukes!”

HOUSE: “Well, Ms. Plame, some why nots are offered in Judebro’s thesis, ‘The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Customer,” in which he provides solid, quantified data of what incentivizes weak nuclear states to transfer nuclear technology.”

OLDMAN: “From the mouth of babes. Wait till a black swan crosses his theories.”

MUTED BLAST: Emanating, seemingly, from front of club. Ballroom populace rush to windows.

AERIAL POV: Smoke rising from left rear panel of one of the limos.

OLDMAN: “Looks like a sticky bomb.”

BUMPY HAND-HELD CAM: Plame bolts downstairs and outside to smoking limo; pulls NeutronRAE II personal radiation detector from holster strapped to thigh.

PLAME: “It’s reading for weapons-grade plutonium. The area needs to be evacuated.”

GISELSIS: “Ms. Plame, you should take a look at this card from atop the wedding cake.”

CLOSE-UP: Card reads: “BEWARE IDES OF RAMADAN – anniversary 67 of Hiroshima.

FADE TO BLACK: Soundtrack: Tom Lehrer’s “Who’s Next?”

Ayatollyah So!

Rosy neo-con visions of sugar plum oil fields and Jeffersonian democracy fairies transforming the Middle East have blurred beyond recognition over the past decade. So, it’s a good time to change the subject and refocus

“For lust of knowing what should not be known, We take the Golden Road to Samarkind.” 

                –James Elroy Flecker’s play Hassan

There was a mysterious blast at a manufacturing facility outside Teheran last November.  This past week the Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs told the annual Herzliya security conference that the Iranians were setting up to produce a missile with a 10,000 kilometer range that could hit the United States. U.S. analysts were quick to point out that known Iranian missiles have but a maximum range of 1,200 miles—enough to reach Israel….  Go to the video tape to watch a “concerned” President Bush in the fall of ’02: “Iraq has a growing fleet (of UAVs) that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas…for missions targeting the United States.”  

Not for the last time will we be misled by rhetorical mushroom clouds into the fog of war with its Rumsfeldian “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” In the lifted lyrics of John “Beach Boy” McCain, do we “Bomb, bomb, bomb…bomb, bomb Iran”?

In The Partition of Palestine, Kermit Roosevelt (Teddy’s grandson) asked, “Will the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine jeopardize the position of the United States in the Middle East?”  He thought it would in 1948; moreover, it would “ease the path of Soviet infiltration.”  A comparable rationale was offered when, as Our CIA Man in Teheran, Kermit spearheaded TPAJAX, which ousted the country’s elected prime minister after he proposed nationalizing its oil, a sovereign assertion that would’ve placed Iran, in our estimation, “behind the Iron Curtain.” 

Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Bollywood handsome head of Egypt, made a parallel move three years later in 1956, by nationalizing the Suez Canal. Wielding Israel Defense Forces as the tip of their spear, England and France sought to regain the Canal and oust Nasser. While the U.S. applied economic pressure on the Brits and French behind the scenes, it was newly installed Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev who got Third World cred for threatening to use nuclear weapons in support of Egypt.  Nuclear brinkmanship didn’t work so well when Khrushchev went eyeball-to-eyeball with the U.S. over Cuba in ’62…and blinked.

Two more clashes with Egypt brought Israel and their most potent Middle East adversary to the Camp David peace accords in ’79. It would usher in more than three decades of peaceful coexistence with Egypt even as the Shah was falling to the cursed Ayatollahs. Twenty-six years of fealty and cut-rate oil out of the Shah’s regime was a darned good return on the paltry five-figure amount Kermit Roosevelt claimed in expenses. For all the scorn heaped on Jimmy Carter, Camp David remains the most sustained contribution to Israel’s security.  

Israeli intelligence didn’t anticipate the Arab Spring spreading to Egypt and, once it did, Prime Minister Netanyahu beseeched the U.S. to stand by Mubarek. Subsequent election of the Muslim Brotherhood on Israel’s passive southern front combines with the five-year old Hamas electoral victory on their western flank to make Likudniks very nervous. Netanyahu’s neo-con alter-ego, Newt Gingrinch, has weighed in: “I think we may, in fact, be having an anti-Christian spring. I think people should take this pretty soberly.”  

Rosy neo-con visions of sugar plum oil fields and Jeffersonian democracy fairies transforming the Middle East have blurred beyond recognition over the past decade. So, it’s a good time to change the subject and refocus. And where better to draw a bead on than that spinning Axle of Evil—Iran? Ever ready to play Mad Mullah to Zealous Zionists, Supreme Ayatollah Khamenei has trash-talked, yet again, about removing the “cancer” that is Israel. “So far,” Khamenei boasted to the “Islamic Awakening and Youth Conference” in Teheran last week, “the Iranian nation has kicked them in the mouth at every stage.”

One bold “Awakening” attendee held up a pesky sign—“Syria?”to remind everyone that growing numbers of Syrians will never awaken again, thanks to the brutal crackdown of Iran’s close ally, Bashar “The Butcher” al-Assad. The fall of Assad would blow a huge strategic hole in Iran’s hegemony. Add to that equation the Persian Spring, which was quickly quelled by Khamenei/Ahmadinejad in a forceful flash-freeze. Deep-seeded discomfort with the Arab Spring is one response Israelis and Iranians share in common.  

Given the rough neighborhood Israelis live in, how far off is Armageddon if the mullahs get the bomb? The specter of nuclear Iran was raised in 1992 by Israel’s then Prime Minister Peres as well as current P.M., Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu who predicted back then that Iran was three to five years away from getting the bomb.  Before the Shah was toppled in 1979, one intelligence report had him setting up “a clandestine nuclear weapons development program.” A looming Iranian bomb has been sighted more frequently than the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot.  

Recently retired Mossad director Meir Dagan, reflecting substantive differences in the Israeli intelligence and defense community, said that an attack on Iran would be “a stupid idea…. The regional challenge that Israel would face would be impossible.” With last year’s exodus of Dagan along with the chief of general staff and the Shin Bet director, “there is no one to stop Bibi and (Defense Minister) Barak.” Lest one dismiss the long-serving Dagan as a weak sister, heed the words of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: “Dagan’s specialty is separating an Arab from his head.”

As oil hovers around the $100/bbl mark, traders have currently dismissed the saber rattling as so much bluster. But with 40 percent of world oil transported through Iran’s Strait of Hormuz, conflict would drive the current price up anywhere from 25-75 percent sending a gallon soaring close to $6. Add these sobering facts: Iran has 25 percent more people than Iraq and Afghanistan combined, and land mass nearly four times that of its neighbor, Iraq.  

In the guestimate of the current Israeli chief of staff, the Iranians possess enough fissionable material to package four nukes at some point. The Israeli nuclear arsenal is approximately two orders of magnitude greater, an order of magnitude lower than the usual Israeli eye-for-an-eyelash ratio. The South Koreans have reconciled themselves to a nuclear North whose Martian leadership makes the mullahs look like hippies. Moreover, since Nagasaki, no nuclear nation, no matter how extreme, has been reckless enough to use a bomb. That restraint won’t prevail forever.

Can the Likudniks constrain themselves, resigned to sanctions of the economic and targeted variety?  Mysterious explosions, the Stuxnet virus and elimination of a half-dozen nuclear scientists have markedly crimped Iran’s weaponization. Soon the capacity of the Iranian central bank will be SWIFT-moated, severing their capacity for secure electronic financial exchange. “Iran’s economy has always been sick, but now it seems worse than ever,” said a Teheran bank employee about the prospects of more sanctions. Nonetheless, pre-emptive strikes like the ones Israel executed against Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 remain mighty tempting.

As we mull all this over, return to my formative yesteryears, when mullahs were mere whirling dervishes, and consider the following Sufi tale, the Persian variation of Aesop’s Fables:

Two clever young men sought to puncture the reputed wisdom of the Mullah Nasruddin.

“You will hide a chicken behind your back,” one clever fellow instructed his clever friend, “and we will ask the Mullah whether the chicken is alive or dead.   If he says ‘alive’, you will break its neck. If he says dead, we will produce the living chicken.”

They came upon Mullah Nasruddin and put him to the test.

Nasruddin scratched his head, offered an indulgent smile and responded, “It’s in your hands! It’s in your hands!”

 

Main Photo: Richard Williams illustration from the Mullah Nasruddin series
Photo: M-Star oil tanker damaged in an explosion in the Strait of Hormuz 7-28-10

God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

You absolutely must be the primary sentinel of your own health. To be effective in that capacity, you have to be in touch with your body and deduce what is good or bad for it. Today’s given wisdom is often tomorrow’s discredited procedure and may even be hazardous to your health.

“You have to be responsible for yourself.” Paula Deen, Food Network host

The Hidden Hand of the Marketplace will cure all that ails you.  So say the Voodoo economists who tout that wondrous elixir – market-based healthcare – packaged, of late, as health-insurance ‘vouchers’.  In other words, my fellow Americans, you’re on your own.

The metastasizing American health care system is now devouring close to one-fifth of our economy.  That is nearly double other First World countries.   Our system delivers shorter lifespans than Third World Communist Cuba.  It is a budgetary hot potato that everyone is tossing to the other guy as it engorges to giant pumpkin proportions.  

Seemingly well-intentioned, Obamacare got the cart before the horse by first seeking to extend this bloated, underperforming system to the tens of uninsured millions.  What would have happened if they set about shaping up the system first then shipping out savings to cover those exposed?  

Murmurs of cost containment drew shrill, special-interest shills crying “Death Panels!”  Fingers wagged at government interference and social engineering.  Mess with tort reform and the Hidden Hand will witch-slap you upside the face.  Bulk purchase drugs to drive down prices and the Hidden Fist will cold-cock you. 

Keep ducking, fellow Americans, God helps those who help themselves.

Back in my halcyon days living close to the bone, I had a choice to make: health insurance or health club membership?  I figured an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and health club clientele look a lot better than patients at health clinics.  Fortunately the only tangible threats to my health during this period were the two hits I took from cabs as I bicycled around Manhattan.

Long-time neighbor Dr. Lyman Fussell passed away a couple of years ago at the age of 107.   Even into triple digits and functionally blind, he would motor around like the Eveready Rabbit.  He remained sharp as a tack, summoning up memories from nearly a century ago.  There was the time, studying at Physicians & Surgeons, he witnessed Columbia college sophomore and future Pride of the Yankees, Lou Gehrig, hammer a baseball out of the campus quadrangle on to 116th Street and Broadway.   

“To what do you attribute your longevity?” I asked Dr. Fussell.

“I stay away from doctors,” answered Dr. Fussell.  

Easy for the good doctor to say, some will argue.  He had the luck of the gene draw, right?  Fellow Columbia Lion, Lou Gehrig, wasn’t so lucky.  The Iron Horse, who went on to play 2,130 consecutive games for the Yankees, died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) just shy of his 38th birthday.  Dr. Fussell’s son, who also became a Dr. Fussell, did not inherit the longevity gene, succumbing to leukemia at sixty.

As traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has it, doctors only get paid when you’re well, not when you’re sick.  My experience with a principle TCM procedure is mixed.  A couple of years after my father’s major stroke, he would travel to Paris during summers for treatment by a Chinese acupuncturist.  Upon his return, impaired speech noticeably improved for a period.  Whether it was the acupuncture, good times with all things French, or the respite from his wife, Heddy the Hun, remains subject to speculation.

My one-time acupuncture treatment only exacerbated the debilitating pain emanating, as later revealed, from soft tissue catching on the splintered head of my femur.  A couple of months of prescribed physical therapy exacerbated even more.  It took an MRI to reveal a necrotic lesion the size of a golf ball on the ball of my hip.  How were such conclusions reached before MRIs, I asked the great doctor treating me?  Had to operate, he responded.  If a hip specialist is unable to pony up an educated guess based on a graphic description of symptoms, it’s time for a different orthopedist.  

You absolutely must be the primary sentinel of your own health.  To be effective in that capacity, you have to be in touch with your body and deduce what is good or bad for it.  Today’s given wisdom is often tomorrow’s discredited procedure and may even be hazardous to your health. 

When margarine was introduced forty years ago as the ‘healthy, low-fat’ alternative to butter, one look told me otherwise.  No way the human body could thoroughly digest and purge a tub of melted yellow plastic, the feel of WD-40.  Margarine was the gateway processed transfat that teamed with high-fructose corn syrup to super-size two-thirds of America.  Photos of Americans from the ‘50s and ‘60s show virtually none of the wide-loads of today.  These body-types aren’t anyone’s destiny.   They are Exhibits A-Z that the body burns whole foods and stores junk food.  Calories are not created equal.

Junk thought contends that children will only eat deep-fried industrial products offered on ‘children’s menus’.  Wrong.  Kids have been conditioned to ‘like’ the crap they’re fed.  My 15yrs-old twins, who have been conditioned otherwise, inhale well-prepared, balanced banquets daily.  They have only gone to a McDonald’s to use the bathroom and thought the restaurant odor gross.   Remember, parents, when you set your kids on a collision course with type-2 diabetes, very few will grow up to parlay their condition into shilling for diabetes injections like Paula Deen, Queen of the Fryolator.

Americans believe they can shovel toxins down their throats with one hand and neutralize by popping pills with the other.  ‘Eat the foods you love,’ then douse the heartburn, antacids advertise.  Maybe heartburn is your body’s way of telling you those foods don’t agree with it.  Listen to your body.  And let your immune system go on maneuvers against most bacteria so to it is prepared to take on the really big threats to health.  The ‘Hygiene Hypothesis’  squared my long-held premise that excessive use of antibacterial has been, paradoxically, a culprit in epidemic rates of asthma and allergies.

God bless the child that’s got good sense (and habits) to “stay away from doctors,” as 107yrs-old Dr. Fussell prescribed.

Fat Cat Manifest: Rev. Ike’s Thinkonomics

If you guaranteed most folks an income next year of one million bucks, but it came with a 70% tax rate, what percentage would sign on the bottom line? Do you suppose there would be a huge groundswell of tea baggers with five-figure incomes turning up their noses on principle over this outlandish top marginal tax rate (which still prevailed in Reagan’s first term)? I, for one, would sign up in a heartbeat then register Republican and rejoin the NRA, lest anyone try to get their mitts on my remaining $300,000.

“As he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” –Proverbs 23:7

If you guaranteed most folks an income next year of one million bucks, but it came with a 70% tax rate, what percentage would sign on the bottom line? Do you suppose there would be a huge groundswell of tea baggers with five-figure incomes turning up their noses, on principle, over such a top marginal tax rate (which still prevailed under Reagan)? I, for one, would sign up in a heartbeat then register Republican and rejoin the NRA, lest anyone try to get their mitts on my remaining $300,000.

The income gap between the top tier and everyone else continues its seismic expansion. Nonetheless, only one-third of Americans, when surveyed, see themselves as ‘have-nots.’ On the contrary, recent census data finds that “a record number of Americans — nearly 1 in 2 — have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income.”

Liberals shake their heads over how wage slaves continue to vote against their own economic interests in favor of Fat Cat bennies like terminating the estate, er, death tax. Like Huey Long’s fictional alter-ego, Willie Stark, kept saying to his minions: “You’re a hick. Nobody ever helped a hick but a hick himself.” Average mokes being played for suckers resonated back in the Great Depression. Not in today’s Great Recession.

A captive (audience like the American Public) can become in thrall to their captor’s cause. So suggests the Stockholm Syndrome. It was invoked to defend media heiress Patty Hearst for her gun-toting, bank-robbing spree with the Symbionese Liberation Army after they had kidnapped her. The prosecution case portrayed a poor little rich girl acting out, posing all radical chic in her Ché beret and M-1 carbine. It is probably a symbiosis of both, as it is for the American consumer – conditioned to be who we wannabe.

Back when Patty and her SLA pals were liberating God knows who, I was a young man on the make, angling to become a millionaire before I turned 30. I started up a couple of promising ventures, raised a bunch of bucks, but, alas, came up short. Subsequently, I took to quipping that, “I have a negative net worth, but a wealth of self-esteem.” Though, truthfully, that may well have been a pre-existing attitude.

In college, I became intrigued with dynamic ‘visualizing’ through Maslow’s ‘self-actualization,’ particularly its commercial applications. I wrote a paper on Holiday Magic and other nominal purveyors of cosmetics which were really in the business of selling ‘distributorships’ via pyramid schemes. It was classic bait-and-switch, mesmerizing marks in revivalist-style marketing confabs featuring ‘Mind Dynamics.’

Then I went on a pilgrimage to the rococo Palace Cathedral in Northern Manhattan’s Washington Heights to catch the Prosperity Gospel of the Rev. Ike. While Reverend Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter’s mother was AfroAmerican, his paternal fore-bearers, like mine, came by way of the Dutch East Indies. Rev. Ike’s was a “do-it-yourself church” with a biracial congregation whose “only savior…is the God in you.” And he wasn’t talking about “that stingy, hard-hearted, hard-of-hearing God-in the-Sky… you learned about in Sunday School.”

A self-professed heretic, Rev. Ike stood four-square at odds with St Paul: “the best thing you can do for the poor is not be one of them.” As one of the pioneering televangelists, the Rev. Ike reached an estimated congregation of 2.5 million. Critics brayed that he played his flock for suckers, a condescending, sanctimonious judgment that sold his flock short. Rev. Ike was almost always square with them. “Be proud of the way I look because you spend $1,000 a week to buy my clothes,” and “my garage runneth over.”

In one sermon he nailed the pious Focus on Family types who shill for special interests in the name of the Lord:

Oh the Games People Play now
Every night and every day now….
People walking up to you, now
Singing glory Halleluiah, now
As they try to sock it to you, now
In the name of the Lord.

Like Lady Gaga, Rev. Ike channeled the yearnings of followers who live vicariously through their icons. Devotees could Be Like Ike by Thinking Like Ike. Rev. Ike’s Thinkonomics teaches the Mastery of Mind and how that mastered mind can be a magnet for money: “If your mind can conceive it, then you can achieve it!” This mantra was lifted virtually verbatim from Napoleon Hill’s 1937 classic, ‘Think and Grow Rich’ which, in turn, draws on the ‘autosuggestion’ of Émile Coué’s “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” It all goes back, as Rev. Ike reminded his flock, to Proverbs 23:7.

My parents, in their diametric ways, bore out Milton’s observation in Paradise Lost that, “the mind is its own place and in itself in his life, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” Rebounding from a career-ending stroke at 52, my father, Ernest, retained his comprehension even as his speech remained truncated. His pat phrases emerged mostly upbeat, like “Up & up!” “Always laughing!” and remained so “Till the end!”

As an advisor to captains of industry, Ernest liked to share a Sufi-style anecdote on Dale-Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Noting that his clientele, not unlike Rev. Ike, had done quite nicely by themselves, if not by others, he would refer you to Baudelaire: “Brigands are convinced – of what? That they must succeed. And so they do succeed.”

Philosopher King Wenceslas

As the playwright’s allegory is a triumph of farce over fear, so too was Havel’s call to “step out of living within the lie” that was the “post-totalitarian system.” By the end of year, Czecheslovakia’s Velvet Revolution had toppled, without firing a shot, a dictatorship that violently suppressed the ‘Prague Spring’ twenty years before.

Good King Wenceslas first looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel…
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

Photo: Playwright Vaclav Havel viewing the victorious Velvet Revolution in Wenceslaus Square

The irony gods have been morbidly ironic this year.  On May Day, Osama bin Laden was eliminated even as Pope Paul II was being beatified.  A month later Jack, ‘Dr. Death’, Kevorkian died of natural causes.  This past week a seminal foe of totalitarianism, Vaclav Havel, was dispatched on the very same day as that nuke-toting, tinhorn totalitarian, Kim Jong-il.

Playwright/essayist Havel was part Arthur Miller, Thomas Paine and Nelson Mandela.  Suppressed and imprisoned by the Communists, he went on to become the first president of a free Czechoslovakia.  “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world,” Havel wrote in The Power of the Powerless that rapidly became the anti-totalitarian treatise embraced by the Solidarity movement in Communist Poland.  “It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality…it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves.”

Still very much under the yoke of Communism, “Golden” Prague looked more like deeply tarnished silver when I visited in 1985.  The Czech capital was reputedly anointed Zlata Praha when King Karel (Charles) IV was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor in the 14th century and had the towers of his castle painted gold.  Six centuries later and four decades deep into Communist rule, Prague was dark and dreary, compliments of its coal-fired power.  Much of its venerable, once glorious architecture was shrouded in rusting scaffolding.

I saw no one manning the scaffolding and actually refurbishing these buildings during my time in Prague.  Its unappetizing restaurants were no-service cafeterias where not even an epileptic fit would have aroused the wait staff.  Then there were the omnipresent Communist slogans writ in large block letters on white billboards attached to the scaffolding.  “You pretend to pay us, we’ll pretend to work,” was, doubtless, not among the exhortations.

I was witness to flash-fires of totalitarian state intimidation. A former student of my father’s at Cornell, now a professor, put his Duke Ellington records on loud to mask dinner conversation, pointing to possible mikes in the ceiling.  There was the uniformed interior ministry officer aboard the train to Budapest making a protracted show trial of peering back and forth between me and my passport photo.   But mostly it was the grim, expressionless populace drudging slump-shouldered through the drabness of daily existence.

I was treated to one unintended parody of the system. Performing Puccini’s opera, La Bohème in the capitol of Bohemia must have been deemed appropriate by the authorities, spotlighting, as it does, the anti-materialist credo of Bohemians, forerunners of beatniks and hippies.   This was a socialist production of ‘boy falls for terminally ill girl’ love story where even the most minor character got to saunter front and center and ham it up.  With his eye for the absurd, playwright Havel might well have been in the audience putting the finishing touches on Temptation.

In Havel’s retelling of the Faust legend, a pact is made with dogma rather than the devil.  When Temptation premiered at New York’s Public Theatre in April of ’89, I was in the audience and Havel was locked up in a Czech prison for leading a demonstration.  (As Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray sold his soul to the Devil for eternal youth, I’m always on the lookout for Faustian pacts.)  Attempting to contact the devil in the detailed government restrictions that bind him, Temptation’s Dr. Foustka conjures an odious Rumplestiltskin named Fistula who smells like Limburger cheese.

As the playwright’s allegory is a triumph of farce over fear, so too was Havel’s call to “step out of living within the lie” that was the “post-totalitarian system.”  By the end of year, Czecheslovakia’s Velvet Revolution had toppled, without firing a shot, a dictatorship that violently suppressed the ‘Prague Spring’ twenty years before.  Havel was elected his country’s first post-Communist leader.

The following year, 1990, I spent months observing another philosopher attempting to be elected king.  Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is Havel’s superior as a writer and storyteller.  But Vargas Llosa was haughty where Havel was humble, rigid not resilient like Havel, and he was rejected by the Peruvian electorate.

Philosopher kings are few and far between, successful ones even more so.  While Havel declined to preside over the splitting of his country, he stood for election as president of the Czech Republic and served for two terms as Prague was once again restored to its past glory.  Another Vaclav named Klaus was his conservative rival and presidential successor whom Havel came to dread dealing with owing to his “distaste for confrontation.”  In typical form, Klaus complained that Havel’s invitation to writer Salman Rushdie, who had a ‘fatwa’ hanging over his head, would undermine Czech trade with Arab countries.   More than anyone, Havel would appreciate the irony that many conservative pundits in America misattribute quotes to him that were actually declared by Klaus.

Havel was able to exact some level of retribution by thinly casting his rival as the villain ‘Vlastik’ Klein in his final play, Leaving, the only one he wrote in the twenty-two years following his country’s liberation.  Creativity is born of restraint, it is said, and dies in freedom.