SMITHEREENS: Reflections on Bits & Pieces

Gar Smith
Sunday February 02, 2020 - 05:23:00 PM


The February 3 edition of TIME Magazine is devoted to a celebration of youth activism around the planet. But while the editorial coverage — enhanced with photos of and essays by scores of young activists — is positive and inspiring, there are two editorial lapses that stand out as mind-bogglingly misappropriate.

First: TIME's special "Youthquake" section begins with a two-page photo collage depicting young activists holding signs in support of leading progressive campaigns. The signs read (from left to right): Save Our Children, Free Speech 4 Students, Protect Our Kids/Not Your Guns, DACA Now, Healthcare for America, System Change/Not Climate Change and #Not My President.

But the last sign on the right (shown being saluted by a trio of beefy, whiskered thirty-somethings) reads: "Protect Our Guns."

(Who knew the right to bear AK-47s was a leading Youth Culture issue?)

The second flub is even worse.

TIME has rounded up a three-page selection of essays by seven prominent youth leaders (including Parkland school shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez). TIME's editors then append three pages of short essays from six elders invited to address paternal/maternal "letters to young activists." The first page begins with a "Letter to My Students" submitted by former UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright. 

Albright remains notorious for her response to reporter Leslie Stahl during an appearance on 60 Minutes. During that 1996 interview, Stahl raised humanitarian concerns about US sanctions that resulted in the mass starvation and deaths of children in Iraq. 

"We have heard that half a million children have died," Stahl stated. "[T]hat is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it? 

Ambassador Albright's reply: 

"I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it." 


What's That in the Middle of the Pentagon? 

The Pentagon, famous as the headquarters of America's military, holds a secret. 

Look at aerial photos of the Pentagon over the years and you will notice something odd in the middle of the sprawling five-sided complex. In some photos there appears to be a five-acre wooded area surrounding a mysterious building. According to official records, the building was, of all things, nothing more than a "hot dog stand." Or, as one visitor described it: "a clapboard wooden kiosk for selling snacks." 

According to Pentagon lore, the Soviet Union came to believe that the hot dog stand was built to hide the entrance to a secret underground bunker and had targeted the structure for destruction with no less than two nuclear missile strikes. (In fairness, it is a mystery how a simple hot dog stand could satisfy the appetites of the Pentagon's 26,000 military and civilian workers.) 

In 2006, the hot dog stand was torn down, forcing the Pentagon's 26,000 workers to go dog-less for more than a decade. Finally, in May 2018, the empty patch was filled by a new take-out joint named Defense Dogs—"designed and concepted specifically to serve the American classic hot dog to the men and woman that serve our country." 

This being the Pentagon, the Defense Dogs menu includes an item called the "Attack Dog" (siracha aioli, candied jalapeno, green onion, jack cheese). 

Still, it's hard to imagine how the new operation—expanded to include café seating for 50 customers—can seriously attend to the snacking needs of such a large workforce. 

My guess is that Russia still has the Pentagon's hot dog stand on its nuclear target list. 

Pentagon Toys with the Idea of a "Small" Nuclear War 

The Pentagon's new "low-yield" W76-2 Trident nuclear warhead has been deployed and is currently out at sea (on board the USS Tennessee) somewhere in the Atlantic! According to Leonard Elger of the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action: "This marks a watershed moment, what is part of a return to the old Cold War thinking and strategy that involves planning for the use of tactical nuclear weapons in war fighting. Some in the Pentagon must be absolutely giddy about this; yes, it is right out of Dr. Strangelove, and this is real!" 

As the Federation of American Scientists points out, these "low-yield" weapons (which can deliver a blow more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki) is part of a new "escalate-to-deescalate" strategy based on the bizarre argument that creating "smaller" and "more usable" nuclear weapons will somehow discourage an atomic war. 

But given the inherent phallic imagery of man-made missiles, this display of new weaponry seems to arise mostly from a primal need for testosterone-fueled military "muscle-flexing." A way of telling other nations: "F--- You." 


Dog Fight 

Shortly after parking my car on a neighborhood street in Oakland, I heard the angry shouts. Two young men, each covered with tattoos, were barreling down the street shouting obscenities. They appeared to be wrestling with each other but, as they approached, I noticed that one of the men was struggling to keep on his feet while restraining a snarling, 40-pound dog that kept lunging at an unseen aggressor. 

I heard a woman screaming. One of the men nearly fell to the ground as the rumble approached. I tried to get a glimpse of the other mastiff but the cars parked in front of me blocked my view. 

Finally, the second contender in this sidewalk battle-of-the-beasts appeared. 

I expected a feisty German Shepherd, a Doberman Pincher, a Rottweiler Metzgerhund or a pit-bull. Instead, the second aggressor turned out to be . . . a scrappy two-pound black cat. 

While a normal cat would bolt from such a confrontation, this cat seemed to realize that the dog was on a tight leash. Thus emboldened, the cat repeatedly jumped at the angry dog, hissing, ducking, and swatting at the lunging canine with its tiny paws. It was like watching the Bruce Lee of Cats in action. 

The man with dog eventually broke away and proceeded down the sidewalk, seething with anger. Loud oaths were uttered by both men and, at one point, the tattooed dog-walker turned around and appeared ready to resume the ruckus. 

At which point, the cat-walker raised his arms in a gesture of peace and suggested: "How about we just call it even?" 

The dog-walker stormed away, resigned to his public humiliation. 

The woman-who-had-screamed was now lying flat on the street, trying to cajole the Bruce Lee of Cats to emerge from the shadows beneath a parked car. 

Bruce wasn't moving. 

Going Viral 

When the coronavirus began to bust loose in Wuhan Province, China responded quickly, moving to quarantine entire cities and shutting down rail, road, and air traffic. China even went to work building two new hospitals for potential victims, promising to complete the work within (not weeks or months but) days! 

Quarantines are essential because the virus is particularly hard to contain: it can incubate in its hosts for two weeks before the victims begin to show any signs of infection. 

So what is Washington's response? It started loading planes with hundreds of potentially exposed Americans and prepared to fly them back into the US. And the US took the additional step of ordering accelerated evacuation to people who were deemed "most susceptible" to infection. Clearing the passengers for travel involves Health workers in full hazmat suits briefly stopping passengers in daily travel wear and asked to take their temperatures before waving them on their way. (Such checks are insufficient to detect travelers who may have been exposed). 

Fortunately, initial plans to fly the potentially infected Americans to major air terminals at SFO and LAX were abandoned. Instead, they were flown to a military base in southern California. But instead of holding the travelers in quarantine for the full 14-day incubation period, the passengers were only held for three days, after which the still-potentially-infected evacuees were flown to their homes in towns across the US. Dispersing the passengers to hundreds of different locations only complicated the process of monitoring the travelers for emerging symptoms. 

According to government health officials, any of the potentially infected travelers could volunteer to remain in quarantine for the full 14-day incubation period. But it was not mandatory. 

So the US policy boils down to this: After the initial three-day-hold, 200 potentially contaminated travelers were dispersed around the country and where they would be able to expose untold thousands of family, friends and neighbors. On January 30, in the first case of coronavirus transmission inside the US, a 61-yearold Illinois woman who caught the infection in Wuhan, infected her husband. 

[Update: On January 31, the government announced it was instituting a 14-day quarantine in order to better control the potential spread of the virus.] 

By contrast, China responded to the crisis by actually constructing a multi-story 1,000-bed hospital from scratch—within five days! 


What are the odds that the Trump administration would be capable of constructing scores of brand-new hospitals across the US to accommodate thousands of coronavirus victims? It's been more than three years and Trump still hasn't built his Wall. 

Hear Ye, Hear Ye! Facing Up to the Surveillance State 

The specter of facial recognition has been trending in the news of late. Most Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of a China-style Social Credit System—where populations remain under constant watch by surveillance cameras that follow their movements while the state monitors all social and financial behaviors in order to reward and punish citizens. But I just discovered another surveillance technology that is already in place in the US of A. 

During a recent conversation with an agent for the American Automobile Association, I was informed that I was being monitored. But this went beyond the usual recorded warning: "This call may be monitored for quality assurance." (Note how the phrase "quality assurance" always remains opaque and undefined). 

According to my AAA interloper, one of the purposes of recording phone conversations is to create a "voice recognition" archive that can identify callers simply from the sound of their recorded conversations. My AAA tipster revealed the system had been in operation for "at least the last four years I've worked here." 

A little research revealed that a US Patent for "Voice and Speech Recognition for Call Center Feedback and Quality Assurance" (Patent No. 10,122,855) was filed on November 28, 2017. 

An industry posting explains how voice recognition technology can be used to improve a corporation's bottom line: "Some systems may even store the recording of the end-user, and even respond to anger and frustration by triggering calming announcements or transferring directly to a live agent. By working with a professional vendor and monitoring and reviewing the caller experience, you will improve the application and improve caller satisfaction." 

Trampling on Trump 

The Donald recently got hit by a stroke of media lightning. Some are calling the shock a Bolton-out-of-the-blue. Trump's former UN Ambassador (hard to imagine, right?) and former National Security Advisor John Bolton has let it be known that his new tell-all book includes a chapter on Ukraine. In the book, Bolton confirms that Trump admitted that he withheld military support from Ukraine as a carrot that he could use to stick Joe Biden with a corruption charge. 

In Trump's defense, Rudy Giuliani called Bolton "a backstabber." Note: Giuliani didn't accuse Bolton of lying; he accused him of a greater crime—disloyalty

It was another moment where Trump and his minions sounded like characters out of Martin Scorsese's The Irishman. ("I hear you paint White Houses.") 

And thanks to Giuliani sidekick Lev Parnas, we now have a tape with Trump's voice demanding the removal of Ukrainian ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. 

Interesting to note: As president, Trump had full authority to dismiss Yovanovitch and appoint a replacement. Instead, he turned to Parnas and used a line that could have been uttered by Tony Soprano or Vito Corleone: "Get rid of her. Get her out tomorrow. I don't care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out, OK? Do it!" 

Trump likes to call himself "a stable genius." How about "a disabled doofus"? 

Harris Biden Her Time; AOC Rooting for the Grassroots 

Kamala Harris is rumored to be contemplating an endorsement of Joe Biden's presidential bid. Related rumors suggest she is considering a Biden/Harris ticket. 

Meanwhile, an editorial in The Nation excoriates “Biden’s long record of poor judgment—on everything from the 1994 crime bill that fueled mass incarceration to his botched handling of Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas to his defense of Bill Clinton’s brutal welfare cuts to his support for the Iraq War to his role as cheerleader for Wall Street deregulation.” The editors concluded: “It may still be unclear which Democrat is best positioned to defeat Donald Trump, but we know one thing: The answer is not Joe Biden. 

The embattled progressives within the Democratic Party don't have any illusions. According to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez "the DCCC made it clear: they aren’t going to back down from their anti-progressive blacklist." Since the DCCC has directed its financial support to mainstream Democrats, AOC and other left-leaning members of "The Squad," have created their own, independent PAC called "Courage to Change." As AOC points out, C2C will be "a progressive alternative to the DCCC. It has a revolutionary model: support working-class champions and unapologetically progressive red-to-blue candidates." C2C has announced a $1,000,000 goal "to help elect progressive candidates across the country, and reelect AOC." 

Rifling Through the Internet 

Brady PAC (aka the Brady Campaign for gun control) recently drew attention to a new worry: "Have you heard of Armslist? It’s like Craigslist... for guns." Anyone clicking on the Armslist website can buy a fully operational assault rifle without undergoing cumbersome background checks. As Armslist puts it: "No Fees, 45,000 guns for sale. The largest free gun classifieds on the web." As Brady PAC puts it: "Nothing to stop a violent criminal from purchasing a weapon.

You can click here to sign the Brady PAC petition calling for a ban on websites like Armslist. (Note: This is one of those links that asks you to fill out a survey only to find the last item on the list is a donation request.)