The Big Reboot: 2

Mr. Webb logged into the gradebook program and took a look at his class rolls. Seeing familiar names was good if they belonged to students he’d taught as freshmen that were now seniors. All the terrors usually dropped out, leaving the good ones – or the ones that had matured – behind. Familiar names were bad if they belonged to kids whose names he learned in the course of enforcing discipline in the hallways. Well, if it was for tardies, it wasn’t that bad.

But if it was for when Mr. Webb asked, “May I please see your ID, sir?” and the kid either refused or said nothing, yeah, that was bad. Even worse were the kids that Mr. Webb knew by their ID number because he memorized it from writing it on referral forms so many times. Mr. Webb could also memorize the numbers from the frequent tardies: he had 089365 in his summer school economics class, and it was a blast. He called him 089 for short.

But all the familiar names and numbers were the good guys. That was fantastic, as it meant they knew how things rolled in Mr. Webb’s class. They could mentor others on how things went, how to keep Mr. Webb from going ballistic, and what kinds of donuts he liked, should they feel inclined to bring donuts for the class. They were kind of like his own cadre of drill sergeants. In return for their service, they were automatically pre-approved to sit on the thrones or the sofas.

Second period looked fine, only 21 people in that class. Any number under 25 was good, in spite of what certain think tanks that tried to justify massive student:teacher ratios so that administrative salaries wouldn’t have to be cut in hard times had to say. Mr. Webb liked to point out that the same guys in the state house that voted for education cuts also insisted that there be no fewer than one adult per 10 children for groups touring the capitol building. The student:teacher ratio sure mattered when it was in their backyard.

25-30 kids in a class was tolerable, but over 30, and things got rowdy just about every day. 10% of everyone in a class was a born troublemaker, and another 20% were born followers of born troublemakers. In a class of 20, the two born troublemakers were easy to keep at a low simmer so that they didn’t start an uprising. In a class of 20, those troublemakers had better than even chances of emerging as class wits. In a class of 30, in the time it took to calm the first two troublemakers, the third would get started, and that would get the followers to join in. Calming that uprising got the other two a window of opportunity to get wound up, and the game of disciplinary whack-a-mole would be well underway.

And 40 in a class? Forget about it. Classes that big, usually full of freshmen, had to start out in a state of war. Those were the classes where Mr. Webb let the line between school and North Korean prison camp blur. Mr. Webb read US Army field manuals on interrogation from before 1967 – the ones that had sections that detailed what, exactly, constituted torture – as well as the Air Force report about how US pilots were treated by the Chinese Army when they were captured.

What was amazing to Mr. Webb was how so much of what constituted torture under the Geneva Conventions was considered to be proper classroom disciplinary technique. He was looking for tips, and wound up getting a refresher course. There were mental conditions described as regression, when the captive started to say and do anything that he thought would please his captor. To an interrogator, such persons were useless, as they would lie if they didn’t know an answer, just to show their captors how willing they were to cooperate. In schools, those types weren’t labeled as regressive. They often got called “top ten graduates.”

Mr. Webb liked kids that cooperated, but not if they lost their imagination in the process. That’s why he paid careful attention to the parts about how to avoid regression. Apply moderate mental pressure, and then let up, that’s what the field manual recommended. It was right. Mr. Webb had a formula for detention that involved torture music. It would be 29 minutes of a tune he called “Revolutionary Atonal Hawaiian Cage Match” followed by one minute of Wesley Willis’ “Rock and Roll McDonald’s.”

“Revolutionary Atonal Hawaiian Cage Match” was the blunt instrument that would be applied to the miscreant’s minds. It was an asynchronous looping of several songs that had no business being played together. It combined the randomness of John Cage’s “Music of Changes” (totally random piano notes), The Beatles’ “Revolution Number Nine”, the skin-crawling creepiness of Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Requiem for Soprano”, and the chorus from Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles.” It was Don Ho’s repetition that sealed the deal and made the tune sound like it was going on forever. Mr. Webb had no clocks in the room – a Chinese Army touch – so that there was no way to know how long the detention had gone.

When “Rock and Roll McDonald’s” came on, a wave of relief rolled over Mr. Webb and the detention attendees. Mr. Webb asked them not to do whatever they did to get a detention again, and the students promised to never do those things, ever, not even for other teachers. It had a great success rate. Even better, if someone was acting goofy the next day, Mr. Webb would ask, “Do you want to get a detention?”

The young swain would invariably offer up some defiant bluster like, “Maybe” or “So?”

Then the people that had gone through detention would tell the goofball words of advice like, “No, you don’t want it” or “You best sit down”. Or they would have a few involuntary muscle spasms at the mention of the word “detention.” Deprived of an audience and becalmed by the peers, the young person would mend his ways and get back to business. No shouting, no screaming, just moderate mental pressure.

If a student refused to go to detention, Mr. Webb liked to point out that it was obvious that he was a creative person and that he would think of something that would get the student back in line. He’d read “1984.” He knew everyone had a Room 101. Usually the thugs that refused detention had an Achilles’ Heel. Mr. Webb would build up to that. He’d take the guy out into the hall for a conversation, so that there wouldn’t be any audience to make him feel like he had to stand up to authority.

“So you skipped detention. What say I have you go to the office?”

“Whatever. They’d just give me a school detention.” Those were three hours long, but were infinitely more bearable than 30 minutes of Mr. Webb’s “music.”

“Huh. Maybe I should call your parents?”

“Like they’ll tell me what to do.” True. If the kid actually respected his parents, this wouldn’t even have been mentioned.

Mr. Webb would pause, pretend to study the tough guy, and then utter, slow and low-down, “Or maybe, just maybe, I should call your probation officer. Or parole officer, whichever.”

That brought out the fear in the face. “Hey, man, not cool.”

“I get the numbers from the school resource police officer. You got conditions on your release, and I plan to have a conversation with the guy and tell him the truth.”

“Hey, I’ll be good. There’s no need for that.”

“No, there is a need. I’m scheduling a call with him, every two weeks. It’s in your hands, what kind of truth I tell him.”

“OK, mister. I’m sorry.” The sincerity really came through right about now. The kid would either get his act together or skip out. Either way, not a problem in the classroom.

Following up on skippers was required, but rarely got them back into class. Usually, the kid would drop out.

Of course, hardly any school in Texas had a dropout rate over the state maximum allowed, even though, statewide, any given class of freshmen would be much smaller by the time it reached senior year. That was because public schools would have students withdraw and enroll at a charter school that was exempt from penalties for high dropout rates. They used to be able to exploit that loophole with just signing a kid up for home schooling, but the state closed that off back in 2005, probably to boost the amount of state money going to the governor’s pet project of charter schools.

So, yeah… good class size second period… all the regular Economics classes looked good, in fact. Biggest was 27, not too bad. But the AP classes… Only 12 in first semester AP Economics and just 9 second semester? What happened? Usually, Mr. Webb could count on 20-plus in each AP section, and three sections of AP, no less. This enrollment was lower than a third of what he expected. Whoever was in charge –

– probably had a scheduling conflict. Mr. Webb looked back at his biggest class, and there was the story. A lot of bright kids in there, all of them in band. He clicked on a student to see his schedule. Yep. The top band class was right through one section of AP Eco and both AP Physics and AP Biology had killed off 4th period. Kids had to make some tough choices, and, ironically, the class about the study of choices had lost out.

Well, maybe Mr. Webb could just ramp things up in that one class and make it more challenging. Then he noticed one more group in that 5th period class besides the band contingent: four inclusion students.

It was wonderful the way the state decided that a standard class should include students that covered two standard deviations above and below average intelligence and then mandated that everyone pass or the school would fall under severe punishments. Translation: if a person shows up sober in a standard class, pass him. If a person just shows up at all in summer school, pass him. Once upon a time, there were more levels of classes to allow for targeting different ability levels. Now, everyone either got lumped into dumbed-down general population classes or they could have their brains fried to a crisp in AP classes. And it looked like these high-fliers that prized Band, Physics, and Biology over Economics were about to be doing a lot of vocabulary words and questions from the end of the chapter. Notebook checks, even. Level playing field, nothing, they were going to have a leveled playing field. As in scorched earth.

That really ticked off Mr. Webb, because one of the reasons he’d gone into teaching in the first place was to be the kind of teacher that could give a challenge to a student that was bored out of his skull with the standard curriculum. No, there had to be a way to reach those guys without delivering a mental KO to the kids that were barely at a 6th grade reading level. There had to be a way.

The Big Reboot: 1

Mr. Webb had a great gig. It was the start of his eleventh year as an Economics teacher at Edward Teller High School in Garson, Texas. Garson was one of those infinite suburbs north of Dallas, Texas that always did its best to vote for as many Republicans as possible. The kids were all right in Mr. Webb’s opinion, but other teachers complained about “the demographical change” that had happened in the years between now and 27 years ago, when Mr. Webb was a senior named Dean Webb at Teller.

When the demographics started to change after the S&L collapse of the early 90s, the nearly all-white student body of Teller took on more and more color each year. Some teachers couldn’t stand that. Frau Hassenfleisch, the German teacher, had a great suggestion: just fail all the Mexicans and Blacks so they’d drop out and transfer to “their” schools. Mr. Webb winced when he heard that story in the faculty lounge. Of all the teachers to be unreconstructed racists, it had to be the German teacher.

“Oh, it got worse!” said kindly old Mrs. Smiley. “Mr. Stein told her she was crazy to even suggest that and then she jabbed a finger right up in his face and said, ‘And we should have shoved you all into the ovens when we had the chance!’ We were so glad when she left after winter break.”

“Mr. Stein? The Math teacher? The guy that never hurt a fly?” Mr. Stein was famous for his lectures on how roaches and flies “were God’s creatures, too.”

“Good old Mr. Stein, that’s right.” Mrs. Smiley nodded and frowned. “Poor guy lost two uncles back in Germany in the Holocaust, and she had the gall to try and put him there, too. Just awful.”

But Mr. Webb wasn’t worried about shifts in demographics. He had grown up watching Sesame Street, so he didn’t care if his students were covered in blue Muppet fur. He did care if they were freshmen. He had been at Teller for eleven years, and the years he had freshmen in a Geography class were, hands down, his most stressful ones. This year had a certain sweetness to it: all his classes were senior Economics. He didn’t care what diversity he had in his classes as long as they were properly segregated by age.

His classroom really lent itself to the senior scene. When he got a room all his own in his second year at Teller, he had chucked out all his desks and replaced them with tables and chairs that were being tossed out of the library during its remodeling. That had led to a scene when the lady that used to have that classroom tried to order him to keep the desks in his room.

“Those desks are brand new! You can’t just put them out in the hall!” Mrs. Martinet was hysterical, as if Mr. Webb was putting her mom on the street.

Mr. Webb stayed calm as the football team members moved the furniture around. They laughed a little as they overheard the exchange. “It’s my room. I prefer tables and chairs. It’s more collegiate.”

“They look like junk!”

“They were good enough for our library. It’s a sin to waste them.”

“It’s a sin to waste the new desks! There are rooms with crappy old desks and you’re just putting these out! They’ll go back to the warehouse and nobody will use them!” Mrs. Martinet was turning purple. The jocks’ quiet laughter probably had something to do with it. She hated children. She only taught because the salary was basically money for jewelry and handbags – her husband more than covered all her other bills – and there was a lot to be said for the 80-day weekend teachers got every summer.

Mr. Webb liked the big vacation, too, but he was in teaching for the kids. That’s why he had tossed the desks. He didn’t want his room to be any more like a jail than it had to be. It was bad enough that bells decided when conversations should stop and start, privileges could be revoked on a whim, and going to the bathroom required a security clearance. He didn’t need to add regimented, uncomfortable chairs with plywood bolted on to remind the kids of their institutionalized status.

He also liked to cover his walls from top to bottom with maps and posters from comic book stores. As Mrs. Martinet tried to get between a linebacker and a shiny new desk, she lashed out against the decor. “This place looks like a dump! It looks like some kind of deranged head shop!”

“Hey, I don’t have any glassware!” A cornerback lost it on that one. He laughed so hard, he dropped the desk he was schlepping and scuffed it on the floor.

“Oh my God, do you know how much that costs? I’m getting the assistant principal up here! This is unacceptable!” She stormed out.

Mr. Webb called out after her, “Hey, we could swap out the new desks with the crappy old ones and send the old ones back to the warehouse. That’s a win-win.”

The assistant principal ruled in Mr. Webb’s favor and Mrs. Martinet had to continue her process of losing it somewhere else. Over the years, Mr. Webb had acquired more chairs, tables, sofas, and even a beanbag so his room was the most comfortable in the building. If chairs lost their legs but were otherwise serviceable, he’d set them on a back shelf where computers were supposed to be installed, but had been removed when the district decided that it wanted to “go wireless”. The three big, legless chairs along the back shelf were fondly known as “the thrones.” Kids that sat in them had a commanding view of the whole room, so Mr. Webb tried to reserve those for the students that were least likely to abuse such a vantage point.

To be sure, chairs that old and vintage had more than a little dust in them. Basically, it was best to just sit on the furniture and not ask too many questions. They were much more comfortable if one didn’t think about how many years of dead skin cells were in that dust that would arise and hover over the chairs for a few seconds every time they got a hard thump. At least the tables got wiped down with bleach every week, so those were mostly sanitary.

The two microwaves and the full-size refrigerator were also pretty clean, so students liked to warm up their lunches in his room. That was cool with Mr. Webb, so long as they didn’t interrupt his daily Bollywood showings at lunch. Lots of kids enjoyed having their Bollywood a half-hour at a time, and Mr. Webb had picked up a pretty decent command of Hindi and Urdu over the years. If there was a movie title or a song lyric that could convey his meaning, Mr. Webb could keep a conversation going.

The 2012-13 school year was just about to start, and Mr. Webb was ready for it. He had a sweet gig and looked forward to the day before classes started, when he got his roll sheets and could begin to get ready for the first day. This year, though, when he got his roll sheets, he couldn’t believe what he saw.

US Foreign Policy Meltdown Roundup

A list of all the places where the US has seriously screwed things up, either through a failed attempt to “fix” the country or through massive failures of tact (insults, spying, ultimatums, etc.). These are all from recent years, which were supposed to be a much better time for US foreign policy than the Bush II years…


OK, probably not all of them… but these are the major ones. I still hold that Bush II was the worst president the USA has had, but Obama seems to be doing all he can to get the tie.

The Great Trade-Off

Which is better, to live a life of ease or to live a life with hardship? I am convinced that the hardship is more important than the ease. While it is nice to have a break from a hard life, it is the hardships of mortality that we are here to experience and to learn from. We do not fully understand the importance of pain, sadness, loss, and death. We may have clues to their importance, but the full value is yet to be revealed to us.

Which leads me to the title, the trade-off between ease and hardship. The grand, Faustian bargain that we all face: do we choose to avoid hardship or to endure it? Do we escape to luxury, or do we make sacrifices? And by luxury, I don’t mean enjoying a few days off from one’s work. I mean a life in which there is little or no work. I know of few paths to luxury that do not involve a crime or great sin of some sort, and none that involve compassion for one’s fellow man. If we have compassion, we work – and work is hardship.

I know of men of great means that nevertheless devote themselves to long hours of service. They know that the hardships they endure on behalf of others are much more important than enjoying their riches. I know of men of little means that will use whatever they can get their hands on to get substances that will remove them from their hardships. I say those things to show that appearances do not always give a glimpse into the hearts of others. We have all kinds of people in the world.

The diversity in the world to come, however, will be limited. Heaven is not known for its broad spectrum of inhabitants. They tend to be people that undertook hardships and not those that escaped them. It is here on this earth, away from God and His perfection, that we are able to experience the deep lessons of mortality. These lessons, in turn, prepare us to return to God.

When we avoid the pain by running to the arms of pleasure, we do not do the things we are meant to do here and set ourselves up for a true hell – regret. After this life, we have memory of things unatoned for, and that is why I choose to work and endure other hardships. That is why I want to do the work of God here, so that I can do the work of God later on. Life here is not supposed to be heaven. If it were, then it would not be here, it would be in heaven.

Trading mortal experiences for a counterfeit of heaven is the great trade-off that we are offered. To accept is to live without pain. To reject that exchange is to life eternally without regret.

The USA, Islam, Russia, and China

To explain the current mess in the world with a resurgent al-Qadea conducting conventional warfare operations and a new cold war, I need to start back in 1989, in Panama.

When the USA forced a regime change in Panama in 1989, things went rather smoothly, all things considered. Yes, there were the massive civilian casualties and destruction of property, but there simply doesn’t seem to be a way to avoid those things in any sort of regime change. No, the “smoothly” I use refers to the installation of a pro-US government and the maintenance of Panama as a pro-US client state. We had such a thing under Manuel Noriega until George H. W. Bush repented of his close association with that dictator. But when Noriega had to go, the USA found a ready ally among the Panamanian elites, and Panama persists in its orbit around the USA. All well and good for US interests.

A few years later, when GHW Bush repented of his close association with the dictator Saddam Hussein, he did not opt for a regime change in Iraq. He got the USA a massive base in Saudi Arabia and, later, Kuwait, but he did not support Kurdish or Marsh Arab uprisings against Saddam Hussein. The realpolitik of that decision made perfect sense to me at the time: in Panama, we had extensive contacts that would be loyal to US interests. In Iraq, we had none. Removing Hussein would, at best, give us the devil we did not know and, at worst, plunge the region into a violent conflict involving religious, tribal, and nationalistic factors. Beast though he was, Saddam Hussein kept order in the area.

There was Haiti, where Clinton returned Aristide to power in 1994. Aristide served until 1996, and was reelected in 2001. By 2004, though, he had to go, as he was making business difficult for US multinationals by trying to make them better corporate citizens. He was also making business difficult for drug dealers by arresting a good number of them. Anyone that knows anything about US foreign policy knows that the major US corporations drive that foreign policy and that drug dealers frequently pop up as intelligence assets. Mess with one, the US might lean on your country a bit. Mess with both, and you will not run your nation for much longer.

Which brings me next to Afghanistan: as long as the Taliban were making strides in negotiations with US over a pipeline traversing their country, the media here depicted them as harsh, but decent enough fellows that could bring much-needed order to a chaotic region. When the negotiations fell apart, the media reviled them as cruel vermin that had to be swept aside. 9/11 happened, and the already-underway plans for regime change in Afghanistan had a much more legitimate color. Hamid Karzai, it seems, is the man the US wants in charge there. Perhaps his ties with major oil companies and drug dealers helped in that respect. Accusations that Karzai engaged in election fraud or even power-sharing negotiations with the Taliban have not made him offensive enough to demand replacement in the eyes of US officials.

The point I want to make with all this is that the rest of the world is not Panama or Haiti to the USA. There are places where we don’t have someone ready, waiting in the wings to do our bidding. There are places where other nations have someone ready and waiting to take over, and still others that nobody has a man ready to go, that will dissolve into anarchy, should a strongman be removed.

Since 2001, the people in charge of US foreign policy, regardless of party or ideology, seem to be unaware of the situation described above. The Neocons under bush thought Saddam Hussein could be removed and a pro-US government installed. Years later, a pro-Iranian government came to the fore that gave oilfield concessions to Russia.

The US State Department tried to leverage the Arab Spring movements for its own benefit, preaching that Twitter and YouTube and Facebook would make the world more democratic and wonderful. Instead, Arab Spring toppled the US-backed dictator in Egypt and delivered a very US-hostile Muslim Brotherhood to power.

For some odd reason, the US then chose to back al-Qaeda forces in Libya when they rose against Qaddafi’s government. The US supported the same al-Qaeda forces when they went into Syria to topple Bashir al-Assad. Now that those same al-Qaeda forces are invading Iraq, the USA is not attacking them, but is instead insisting that the regime in Baghdad change. Whaaaaat?

al-Assad is a Shi’a, after a fashion. The rulers in Iraq are Shi’a. The Iranians are Shi’a. The al-Qaeda maniac murderers opposing those three are Sunni. The Qatari and Saudi factions that are backing the al-Qaeda forces are also Sunni. The USA is lining up with those forces. Let me specify that the USA is lining up with extremist Sunni factions that see no political solution for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. The more politically involved Muslim Brotherhood did not get USA backing. The highly violent al-Qaeda did.

Now that the USA attempted a regime change in Russia’s own back yard, it’s not any surprise that Russia will make common cause with the Shi’a. Now an age-old Islamic split takes on a new importance in the new cold war. The USA has somehow decided that it cannot ally with moderates in this case: it makes its cause common with ravenous, bloodthirsty war criminals. Russia is on the side of stability, even if it’s the stability of a harsh regime. Honestly, the Russian position makes more sense to me.

I know that the USA makes political hay off of supporting democracies around the world, but the fact remains that if we want reliable allies overseas, it often involves installing dictatorships to serve our ends. Corrupt, criminal, festering dictatorships. We like our Francos and our Somozas and our Marcoses, but if they get a little Mussolini on us and start to flex their muscles, we move to silence them. I don’t see how we’ll be well-served in the long run by violent Sunni extremist terrorists.

Neither do the Chinese. They have their own mess of violent Sunni terrorists to deal with, and they’re not about to provide material aid to their fellow-travelers. That gives them one more reason to side with Russia in the current geopolitical line-up. China also might need to use violence to preserve the integrity of its regime: Russia will not criticize that, while the USA will. That’s yet another reason for China to line up with Russia.

So it’s USA and Sunni extremists against Russia, China, and Shi’a governments. In a matter of time, I see the USA coming out the loser in this contest, reaping the whirlwind that it has sown in supporting the very entity that wants to see it destroyed.

Right On, My Brother!

I love music to be happy to. I love music that speaks of a better day and a better way. I love music that lifts me up and shows me the way to go. That means I love this collection. I need to get more of The Staple Singers, that’s for sure.

Is it funk? Is it soul? Is it gospel? Is it rock? Does it matter? It’s definitely resonant of the seventies. Think Jackson 5, Sly and the Family Stone, the O’Jays… yeah, the good stuff. The music is fine stuff on its own, but the spirit behind it takes it all to a higher level. Make no mistake, there’s a message in this music, but it’s an open invitation to everyone that wants to be a brother or a sister to one another. To me, that’s the true spirit of Christ, and it’s something the world can always use more of.

Anyone that thinks choirs of angels singing would be boring beyond belief is obviously not taking into account that Pops Staples is in heaven right now. This stuff never gets old, and that’s important when you contemplate eternity.

Where’s the Earth-Shattering Kaboom?

The Apocalypse, the big one, the big finish, that should have happened by now. With the number of nuclear weapon incidents we’ve had, every one ending with a line about how, but for the one… switch, latch, trigger either failing or holding in such a way to prevent a fully-armed detonation of a weapon, I find it miraculous that the word “every” needs no qualifiers.


Humans, as a rule, are not any less error-prone since 1945. We’ve had lethal incidents involving nuclear power and even nuclear weapons, but nothing that destroys cities, let alone all life on earth. Make no mistake that the decision to initiate actions with the intent to end all life on earth is in the hands of a very small number of decision-makers. So far, that decision has not been made, either purposefully or accidentally. Early detection and launch control systems have produced conditions that could have resulted in catastrophic, accidental, global thermonuclear warfare. Not just one or two: far too many to count on two hands.

This, on top of our planet having received the blessings of a flawless 4.6 billion year run, at least from the observer bias of being a member of the human species. Had humans popped on the scene simultaneous with the riotous explosion of life in the Permian, while our brains would have given us a grand advantage, there would have been no supply of cheap, efficient fuel directly beneath the surface. Had the world brought forth life in abundance and glory only 100 million years after the planet formed, that life would not walk a metaled world: the supernova dust that brought metals to earth took a span of aeons to accumulate here. I could go on, but Stanislav Lem has already written that essay, so I refer interested readers to seek out his words on this topic. Suffice to say, our planet has a long and fortunate history of being in the right place at the right time.

And here I see another suspension of the laws of probability simply because I draw breath. By rights, I figure that humanity should have snuffed it back in the 60s or 70s… or last week. Why are we still here? Are we really that lucky, or is there a force at work that is preserving us for a later purpose?

Those who know me will not be surprised to see me subscribe to the latter view. There are things that must happen, so they will happen. Events that would interfere with those things that must happen will not be allowed to come to pass. Not just nuclear holocausts: financial collapses, asteroid impacts, solar flares – there are so many things that could destroy life as we know it and as it exists with either complete or near-complete wiping out of the whole of humanity, and yet, they do not impact us, not now, and not for some time.

It’s not just that the end is near. The end is whizzing past our heads. The end can arrive at any time. But I believe that it will not arrive until it needs to. I believe that what stays the end for now is that there is a higher purpose that must be accomplished here. When that purpose is complete, the end to this existence arrives – I believe that is the way with any life, really. But when the end to the purpose for the world being our world, as we know it, when that end comes, there is something else to happen after that.

We do not have forever, but we have as long as we need, provided we are about the business of making better choices and learning how to love better. Today is always the day to strive to do better in our lives.

I’ll Keep This Short

I just read a report about how al-Qaeda in Iraq just overran the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second city and home to the heart of its northern oil industry. The al-Qaeda forces also captured the Iraqi Army’s helicopters stationed there… the helicopters we gave them… The same al-Qaeda forces that are turning Iraq into another Syria are, themselves, connected to the al-Qaeda forces that are fighting against the Bashar regime in Syria.

Some time ago, I said that invading Iraq was a huge mistake. More recently, I said that the US’ support of Syrian rebels was a huge mistake.

Well, I promised to keep this short, so instead of countless words spilled over the bankruptcy of US foreign policy, I’ll use just four:


The Nazis and the Thalidomide Disaster

Part of a chapter in a book I’m reading, Corporate Crime in the Pharmaceutical Industry, by John Braithwaite, deals with the Thalidomide disaster. While it is exceptionally difficult for me to work my way through the descriptions of birth defects, I feel that I owe it to the victims of that horror to steel myself and endure the details of it all. In so doing, I was impressed strongly that this sort of corporate crime should be every bit as infamous as that of the Nazis. That it is not so, I find gravely troubling.

Sane people of this day excoriate the Nazis, and rightly so. They were a political force that devastated the lives of millions with aggressive wars, political purges, and, ultimately, genocides. But they did so not as a unified body of believers, but as a set of individuals making seemingly normal decisions, the sum of which produced the monstrous barbarity of the regime. At the sharp end of Nazism, there was extreme brutality and violence, but almost immediately, there were administrative layers to separate those actors from other persons within the regime. Consider the lot of a train station operator: was he able to approve shipments of food or resources while denying transport of victims to murder camps? Is he complicit in the crimes of his regime? Is he innocent? Perhaps he’s stuck in an awkward, greyish middle, where he condemns the crimes, but feels powerless to halt them because of fear or because he knows that he cannot alone overcome the bureaucratic inertia that put the process into motion. He can rationalize that his role in the crime is small, or that he has no choice but to participate in the crime. Those thoughts can get him through the night without pondering his fate overly much.

I find myself, and, really, anyone else in Western Civilization, to be like that train operator. We may know or we may not know, but we all participate in the crimes of our civilization at least to the extent that he does. If we drive a car, use things made of plastic, or eat food we have not grown ourselves, somewhere in that chain of production, there is the shedding of innocent blood or the pollution of a remote village where petrochemicals are exploited. Can I stop using gas? Can I produce my own food, all on my own with no aid from outside? Perhaps so, but, even then, am I still somehow complicit in the crimes of the world if I do not actively oppose them?

Most people shrink away from that precipice of judgment. Perhaps that is necessary in order to keep on living, to try to do what is right in other areas to overcome our shortcomings in being unable to destroy or convert a system too large for us to fathom completely. But, in so doing, how far does one go before one is adding layers of rationalizations to make a more active role in evil seem palatable?

This brings me to the Thalidomide disaster. A certain drug company, Chemie Grünenthal, produced the drug with the hopes that it would be a huge seller – a sleeping pill that was completely safe, that was the marketing line. Given the normal dangers of sleeping pills, such a thing would be a massive hit. However, Grünenthal’s marketing was a Göbbels-like “big lie”, in that it did not mention the horrific side effects it would have on people and unborn babies, in particular. Even though doctors doing trial tests noted those issues, Grünenthal chose to cherry-pick test results that showed favorable conclusions for Thalidomide. After all, they wanted the authorities in various nations to approve the drug for sale as an over-the-counter pill. All data is subject to researcher conclusions, isn’t it? So why not focus on the positives?

When Thalidomide went on sale in various countries, it received multiple brand names. While the drug under one brand name would be recalled in, say, Germany, the same drug would continue to be sold under a different brand name in, say, Sweden or Brazil. Now, the question facing us is this: is it wrong to use different brand names for the same thing? In this case, it resulted in additional, avoidable deaths.

There were pharmaceutical salesmen in Australia whose wives used the product while pregnant, only to deliver babies with the outrageous birth defects associated with Thalidomide. They reported these tragedies up the line, but nobody within Grünenthal moved decisively to halt the distribution and sale of the drug. Worse, when an Australian study was submitted to the British medical journal, The Lancet, the editors of that journal rejected it, citing pressure to publish other papers. A German physician published a paper about the dangers of Thalidomide, but Grünenthal attacked both the physician and the journal that published the paper as being sensationalist. Grünenthal did withdraw the drug from sale in Germany, not out of safety concerns, but due to the negative publicity the drug had received. Grünenthal admitted no wrongdoing in that case.

Even though the FDA did not approve Thalidomide for use in the USA, Grünenthal worked with a US firm, Richardson-Merrill (itself guilty of a major pharmaceutical fraud with the drug MER/29), to distribute the drug as part of a test trial. Richardson-Merrill salesmen told US doctors that they had been specially selected to participate in the trial, but supplied no placebos and told those same doctors that they didn’t need to keep accurate records. Just prescribe it and be part of a money-making enterprise, that’s what the salesmen told the doctors. Did the salesmen themselves invent those lies and deceits? Were marketers culpable? Were executives that wanted to increase profits ultimately to blame for creating a system that wanted to sell a drug without regard to the horrors it would inflict upon those that took it?

The pharmacologists at Richardson-Merrill knew the drug could cross the placental barrier and become a threat to fetuses. But was it a crime to say the drug might be a threat instead of it will be a threat? It’s hard to condemn a person for choosing a conditional term instead of an absolute term, but given how that conditional term then enabled another deviation from an ethical line down the road, which itself led to another and another, it should be just as hard to shrug and say that there wasn’t anything wrong with using a conditional term.

Richardson-Merrill also committed outright frauds. Their own employees created trial information and put the names of fictional doctors on the covers of those reports, then submitted them to the FDA as part of the approval process. But could a director or other executive claim to not know what was going on and, thereby, be innocent of that wrongdoing? Of course. Also of course, that same executive wouldn’t hesitate to approve the dismissal of an employee that wasn’t producing positive results to boost revenue. That same executive would also not hesitate to give more work to clinical testing labs that produced consistently positive and helpful findings for his firm. As long as he never officially knows of any wrongdoing, he can feel insulated from whatever crimes are being committed.

And that brings us back to the Nazis. Hitler did not personally stand at the controls for the showers in Auschwitz to deploy the nerve gas instead of water. Göring did not personally receive victims to burn alive in ovens. Himmler did not personally load Russians into an Einsatzgruppen van, where they would receive the carbon monoxide from the engine exhaust for half an hour, killing them. Himmler did witness executions, but it was always someone of a lesser rank that pulled a trigger or flipped a switch or buried a body. Himmler produced innovations in processes that made exterminations more efficient, but he left it to others to carry out those exact details. If he had had access to enough paper shredders and a corporate legal team, he could have claimed no involvement at all in the Holocaust.

And that, then, brings us back to the corporate world. Grünenthal executives in Germany had broken the law, a prosecutor determined, and would stand trial. In their defense, the Grünenthal executives claimed that unborn children did not enjoy legal protection under German law, except in the matter of a deliberate, criminal abortion. The Grünenthal executives then brought forward a parade of experts to say that they had no conclusive knowledge of fatal and worse birth defects being linked to Thalidomide. Two years into the trial, Grünenthal employees were still at work, threatening anyone that was being publicly critical of the firm and its drug. Grünenthal executives made a public plea that they would continue the trial, even if it meant using all the resources of the firm, but would consider an out-of-court settlement to end the affair. Of course, they would not admit guilt in such an event, but would merely be making the settlement so as to get on with its business and to give some measure of comfort to those that believed they were wronged in some way by Grünenthal or its products. Grünenthal paid an amount equal to $31 million, and that was that.

Grünenthal continued to make settlements, often with a condition of non-disclosure and non-discussion to go along with the money. Given that it makes roughly a billion dollars per year of late, such payments would be a noticeable, but not devastating hit on profits. Grünenthal has since had multiple citations from regulators, so they are by no means a group of choir boys as a result of the Thalidomide disaster. They paid their blood money, but spent no time in jail. Such is the lot of a corporate executive that has not been deprived of his access to corporate resources.

It is also the lot of a person who has done some very bad things, but whose knowledge or position is such that he is too big to fail for, if he should fail, then he takes down much of the structure of society that supports him. There were Nazis that had important scientific knowledge: they escaped trial. There were Nazis that acted as informants against the Soviet Union: they escaped trial. There were Nazis that were willing to fight against Communists in Latin America: they escaped trial. Today, we see bankers that sat atop massive frauds that also escaped trial.

And, by keeping the settlements secret, Grünenthal also prevented the formation of a class-action lawsuit. Only one Thalidomide case ever went to trial, and Richardson-Merrill (the defendant in that case) arrived at an out-of-court settlement during the appeal process.

Thalidomide resulted in more stringent laws around the world to control pharmaceutical safety, but access to money and power means there is always the opportunity for a pharmaceutical company to circumvent those laws. Just as the Nazis’ access to money and power provided legitimization for the regime – witness all the global firms that did business with the regime in spite of their connections to criminal activities – so it is for corporate actors.

So what if the Nazis never got involved in the Second World War? They would have been brutally murderous, yes, but their infamy would be no greater than that of the Ottoman Empire during World War One, or one of many US-sponsored Latin American military dictatorships. Consider even the reputation of Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin: those men headed up regimes more murderous than the Nazis, but they never lost their access to power and money, so they are frequently viewed as more benign than their German counterparts. American slave owners, the British East India Company’s opium trade, right-wing death squads acting against Communist rebels… the list goes on of persons and collections of persons that retained access to power and money and thereby avoided facing full accountability for their crimes. The Nazis simply present an unusual chapter in history as a corporate group that lost its access to power and money and, therefore, had to face some sort of responsibility for its actions.

Thalidomide the drug is itself infamous. But the manufacturers of the drug, Grünenthal, continue to do business. They released an apology in 2011, but did not move to retroactively offer additional compensation or admit wrongdoing, even though a mass of documents points to not only a large number of breaches, but a large variety of breaches, as well. Grünenthal does business and there is no immediate name recognition for that company name to connect it to Thalidomide, much in the same way as a black swastika in a white circle on a red field is instantly recognizable as a symbol intimately connected with evil. Grünenthal is representative and typical of the powerful: the Nazis are the exception, the group that abused absolute power and faced punishment for it.