Micah’s Miscellany

Bob Dylan on Moby Dick

“Here’s a face. I’ll put it in front of you. Read it if you can.”

From the Nobel Prize lecture:

Moby Dick is a fascinating book, a book that’s filled with scenes of high drama and dramatic dialogue. The book makes demands on you. The plot is straightforward. The mysterious Captain Ahab – captain of a ship called the Pequod – an egomaniac with a peg leg pursuing his nemesis, the great white whale Moby Dick who took his leg. And he pursues him all the way from the Atlantic around the tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. He pursues the whale around both sides of the earth. It’s an abstract goal, nothing concrete or definite. He calls Moby the emperor, sees him as the embodiment of evil. Ahab’s got a wife and child back in Nantucket that he reminisces about now and again. You can anticipate what will happen.

The ship’s crew is made up of men of different races, and any one of them who sights the whale will be given the reward of a gold coin. A lot of Zodiac symbols, religious allegory, stereotypes. Ahab encounters other whaling vessels, presses the captains for details about Moby. Have they seen him? There’s a crazy prophet, Gabriel, on one of the vessels, and he predicts Ahab’s doom. Says Moby is the incarnate of a Shaker god, and that any dealings with him will lead to disaster. He says that to Captain Ahab. Another ship’s captain – Captain Boomer – he lost an arm to Moby. But he tolerates that, and he’s happy to have survived. He can’t accept Ahab’s lust for vengeance.

This book tells how different men react in different ways to the same experience. A lot of Old Testament, biblical allegory: Gabriel, Rachel, Jeroboam, Bildah, Elijah. Pagan names as well: Tashtego, Flask, Daggoo, Fleece, Starbuck, Stubb, Martha’s Vineyard. The Pagans are idol worshippers. Some worship little wax figures, some wooden figures. Some worship fire. The Pequod is the name of an Indian tribe.

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“And That’s Still Not All Of It”

Bob Dylan on The Odyssey, from his Nobel Prize lecture:

 The Odyssey is a great book whose themes have worked its way into the ballads of a lot of songwriters: “Homeward Bound, “Green, Green Grass of Home,” “Home on the Range,” and my songs as well.

The Odyssey is a strange, adventurous tale of a grown man trying to get home after fighting in a war. He’s on that long journey home, and it’s filled with traps and pitfalls. He’s cursed to wander. He’s always getting carried out to sea, always having close calls. Huge chunks of boulders rock his boat. He angers people he shouldn’t. There’s troublemakers in his crew. Treachery. His men are turned into pigs and then are turned back into younger, more handsome men. He’s always trying to rescue somebody. He’s a travelin’ man, but he’s making a lot of stops.

He’s stranded on a desert island. He finds deserted caves, and he hides in them. He meets giants that say, “I’ll eat you last.” And he escapes from giants. He’s trying to get back home, but he’s tossed and turned by the winds. Restless winds, chilly winds, unfriendly winds. He travels far, and then he gets blown back.

He’s always being warned of things to come. Touching things he’s told not to. There’s two roads to take, and they’re both bad. Both hazardous. On one you could drown and on the other you could starve. He goes into the narrow straits with foaming whirlpools that swallow him. Meets six-headed monsters with sharp fangs. Thunderbolts strike at him. Overhanging branches that he makes a leap to reach for to save himself from a raging river. Goddesses and gods protect him, but some others want to kill him. He changes identities. He’s exhausted. He falls asleep, and he’s woken up by the sound of laughter. He tells his story to strangers. He’s been gone twenty years. He was carried off somewhere and left there. Drugs have been dropped into his wine. It’s been a hard road to travel.

In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you. You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies. You too have come so far and have been so far blown back. And you’ve had close calls as well. You have angered people you should not have. And you too have rambled this country all around. And you’ve also felt that ill wind, the one that blows you no good. And that’s still not all of it.

 

Menendez & Netanyahu

The federal corruption trial of Senator Robert Menendez and his very good amigo, Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, is underway in New Jersey. It doesn’t appear to be going well for the prosecution.

On Tuesday, the government put Dr. Melgen’s girlfriends on the stand, and they weren’t happy about it. Senator Menendez is accused, inter alia, of exerting improper influence to obtain visas for the foreign-born women in exchange for gifts—bribes, prosecutors say—from Dr. Melgen. Svitlana Buchyk, a “model and actress,” had the courtroom “laughing at some of her answers,” Politico reported. When asked by a defense attorney how long she had spent with prosecutors preparing her testimony, she said she didn’t know, “it just seems very long when I’m around them.”

Asked if she understood why she was in court, Ms. Buchyk “let out a long, exasperated ‘no,’” Politico reported. “No, I don’t know why I’m here,” she said, indicating lead prosecutor Peter Koski. “He’s just forcing me to be here.”

In the courtroom, Judge William Walls did not allow Dr. Melgen’s girlfriends to be referred to as “girlfriends,” only “friendship” was acknowledged, fooling no one. In a bizarre filing before the trial opened, the government worked hard to portray the senator and the wealthy doctor as two dirty old men living the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Dr. Melgen wanted to bring his young “foreign girlfriends to the United States to visit him,” the document notes. The women were “from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Ukraine.” Senator Menendez helped with the visas. Dr. Melgen arranged for Mr. Menendez and his girlfriend (oh by the way both men are married) “to stay in Punta Cana, an exclusive oceanside resort town” in the Dominican Republic.

On other occasions, the two men and their, er, friends, enjoyed vacations “at Melgen’s villa at Casa de Campo, a cloistered resort on the southeastern coast of the Dominican Republic with renowned golf courses, a spa, polo fields, a marina, restaurants and other amenities.” The trial brief describes an “enclave, venerated for its seclusion” and “frequently visited by luminaries in sports, entertainment and business, including Beyonce, Jay-Z, Jennifer Lopez, Richard Branson and Bill Gates.” Elsewhere in the brief, the government notes that with assistance for Dr. Melgen, Mr. Menendez stayed at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Paris, “one of Europe’s most elite, routinely hosting celebrities from the world over, including the likes of George Clooney and Maria Sharapova.”

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Is This The End Of Bibi?

Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is the great survivor in the blood sport of Israeli politics. Glib, cunning and endlessly calculating, he squeezed past Shimon Peres to narrowly win a first term as prime minister in 1996, only to crash on the rocks of hubris and be crushed by Ehud Barak three years later. Ariel Sharon brought him back to political life as foreign minister and, later, finance minister. He repaid him by quitting the government after Mr. Sharon decided to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. In 2009, he returned as prime minister and has been there ever since, coming out on top in two more elections and cobbling together governing parliamentary coalitions with parties from many points on the Israeli political spectrum. He says he’ll seek an unprecedented fifth term as prime minister.

Unless he goes to jail first. The prime minister often has danced perilously close to scandal and defeat, only to come out on top. But a series of corruption cases suddenly has the Israeli public wondering if this is the end of Bibi. Four cases working their way through the Israeli justice system pose a threat.

Israeli prosecutors like round numbers. In “Case 1000,” Mr. Netanyahu is alleged to have received shipments of expensive cigars and champagne, as well as gifts of jewelry, plane tickets and hotel rooms, from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian billionaire James Packer. What Mr. Netanyahu did in return is murky. News reports say he may have helped the two men with visa and residency issues—pretty thin stuff to bring down a prime minister—and protected Mr. Milchan’s interests in an Israeli television channel. Mr. Netanyahu insists that the lavish gifts were just tokens of affection from two good friends. The charges here could run from breach of public trust to bribery.

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Will Menendez Walk?

A criminal indictment is a beautiful thing—an austere document, grave and fateful. Who is charged with committing what crimes, and where, and when, and how? What laws have been violated? In it rests the fearsome power of the state. From it may pass a person’s liberty, even life itself. It is transparent in spite of itself: making the argument, it reveals its flaws

The indictment of United States Senator Robert Menendez and Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen charges the two old friends with a conspiracy to commit bribery and “honest services fraud.” It states that they schemed to corruptly influence Senator Menendez’s “official acts” and “defraud and deprive the United States and the citizens of New Jersey of the honest services of a public official.” It sketches attempts to obtain visas for Dr. Melgen girlfriends; attempts to influence the Department of Homeland Security in a contractual matter concerning a Melgen-owned security-screening company; and attempts to gain a favorable ruling from the Department of Health and Human Services in a gigantic Medicare reimbursement dispute—an episode that eventually would land Dr. Melgen in calamity.

Every indictment tells a story. This one is a tale lust, greed and comical incompetence. Whether it’s a story of criminal behavior is another matter. Dr. Melgen showers his old friend with free plane trips, vacation holidays, and large campaign donations at critical moments. Senator Menendez fails to disclose the gifts, setting himself up for a false statements charge. The senator’s office helps the married Dr. Melgen obtain visas for three young girlfriends, all identified as “models.” Embassy officials push back, but eventually the visas are approved. The senator’s office attempts to intervene with the Department of Homeland Security to undermine a security-screening company in the Dominican Republic, a move that would boost the fortunes of Dr. Melgen’s rival company. But it turns out that DHS has no leverage in the matter. In 2009, the senator and his staff step into an $8.9 million Medicare fight, advocating on Dr. Melgen’s behalf in an increasingly tense series of meetings with Department of Health and Human Services officials, working their way up the bureaucratic food chain. The battle goes on for three years. Senator Menendez is rebuffed at every turn. Senator Menendez grows increasingly upset. The Medicare determination is upheld: Dr. Melgen owes $8.9 million.

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Extreme Transparency & Discretionary Disclosure

These are tough times for transparency. But let’s be honest: does anyone care? The concept has an “eat your vegetables” feel to it. Deep down we know it’s good for us, but, meh.

If you think transparency and sunshine laws don’t matter, consider these recent items:

  • despite enormous public interest, the federal government has declined to release a redacted report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election
  • President Trump refuses to make his tax returns public and will not release White House visitor logs
  • the majority leader of the United States Senate attempted to ram through a colossal change in American health care with a bill written in near-total secrecy
  • the House of Representatives repealed an SEC rule requiring that extractive industries disclose payments to foreign governments, killing an effective “follow the money” transparency measure that deterred payoffs and bribes
  • anonymously owned shell companies are steering billions in dirty money to U.S. luxury real-estate markets
  • fighting government stonewalls, Judicial Watch has been forced to sue in federal court for former FBI Director James Comey’s memo of his meeting with President Trump, and to file five additional lawsuits related to alleged monitoring of the president and his associates in the Russia connection case

There’s plenty of blame to go around for transparency failures. But as Judicial Watch’s Director of Investigations Chris Farrell has pointed out, when it comes to sunshine actions, the Trump White House has a solution at hand that’s both elegantly simple and breathtakingly radical. The Freedom of Information Act allows for the executive branch to make “discretionary disclosures.”

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Day One—The First Immolation

Every life is in many days, day after day.
–James Joyce, “Ulysses”

Thupten Ngodup

Thupten Ngodup
April 27, 1998. Delhi, India

He lived in a small, neat hut near a rhododendron forest on the grounds of a monastery in Dharamsala, India. The Tibetan writer Jamyang Norbu noted that “by all accounts, Thupten Ngodup seems to have been a light-hearted person who enjoyed an occasional drink and a game of cards.”

Born in a village in Tibet in 1938, he went into exile following the 1959 Lhasa Uprising against Chinese Communist rule. In 1963, he enlisted in the Special Frontier Force, a covert-action military cadre controlled by Indian intelligence. He saw action in Bangladesh and retired in 1983, moving to Dharmsala and becoming a monastery cook. He was not a particularly religious man but is remembered by friends as “honest, upright and a good companion,” Norbu writes.

Though “not politically inclined,” Norbu notes, “he unfailingly attended all demonstrations, candle-light vigils or meetings for Tibet.” In early April, 1998, he traveled to Delhi to join a Tibetan Youth Congress hunger strike. On April 27, following a second police raid on the strikers, he slipped into a public toilet where he earlier had hidden a plastic container of gasoline. “When he came out,” Norbu writes, “he was, quite literally, an inferno.”

He died two days later, shortly after midnight. Thupten Ngodup was 60.

–Sources: International Campaign for Tibet, Self-Immolation Fact Sheet; Jamyang Norbu, Shadow Tibet blog, “Remembering Thupten Ngodup.”

Collective Punishment in Tibet: “Smash Disorder”

In November, the Chinese Communist Party’s Work Department, Huangnan Prefecture, issued an “urgent notice” of new orders for fighting the wave of self-immolations in Tibet. The notice—translated here by the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy—offers a glimpse into the mindset of Tibet’s rulers, their methods of collective punishment, and what they fear most: disorder. 

According the notification, recent self-immolations in the area are “incidents of instability [that]…cause serious damage to harmony and stability in the whole prefecture and [have] been a negative influence on the province and nation. The incidents are clearly a case of the Dalai group”—that is, followers of the Dalai Lama—“while wearing a cloak of religion, using self-immolation to encourage social grievance and incite unrest among students to create social disturbance in an attempt to split the nation.”

Translation of translation: there is a conspiracy afoot, comrades, a conspiracy against the nation. That is, treason.

The notice adds: “The masses in some areas, both monks and laypeople, are putting about random and nonsensical talk and being taken in by the incitements of the Dalai group through ignorance, believing the self-immolators to be heroes and even going to greet their family members and make voluntary donations to them.” This has created “a problematic scene and upset the normal social order.”

Translation of translation: it’s not just students anymore, it is spreading to the masses. We are worried. 

The solution? “Smash the small number of criminals who despicably manipulate people…smash disorder.”

And when we are worried, pain and suffering follow.

Party operatives are thus directed:

  • “Cancel benefits [such as minimum income support and disaster relief] received by households of self-immolators.”
  • Stop projects “running on state funds in self-immolators’ villages.”
  • Townships with three or more self-immolation incidents will not receive “state-funded projects for the next three years, [and] leading party and government officials in those townships must be replaced.”
  • “Special personnel” must “swiftly put a stop” to “instances of greeting and making contributions to family members of self-immolators”
  • For those who persist in greeting and making contributions, “public security agencies must…smash them.”
  • Monks who “greet and make donations must be given corrective training” and benefits will be “cancelled.”
  • Laypeople and households making contributions to family members of self-immolators will have benefits “cancelled.”
  • Villages and monasteries making collective donations to families of self-immolators will have all benefits “cancelled” and will not “benefit from any state-funded projects for the next three years.” Projects already under way “must be cancelled.”
  • Monks and laypeople who organize to greet family members of self-immolators “must be swiftly investigated and once solid evidence of their activities is gathered, they must face legal proceedings at an early date and be smashed quickly and heavily, according to law.”

Read the full notice here:

 

They Eat Horses, Don’t They?


It’s been a tough few months for our equine friends. In New York, by the close of Aqueduct Racetrack’s winter meet, nineteen thoroughbreds had broken down—a polite term for suffering a catastrophic racing injury—and were executed by lethal injection. Nineteen. That’s a huge number.

Albany is investigating. Good luck with that.

Over at HBO, the terrific horse racing series, “Luck,” endured a third horse death in two years and was hounded to cancellation by the animal rights crowd. Or were the producers just using PETA as an excuse to bail out in the face of bad ratings?

Now this from the AP: the Valley Meat Co. of Roswell, New Mexico, has applied to the federal government for a permit to open the nation’s only horse slaughterhouse. The horses would be “custom slaughtered” and then “processed for human consumption at the plant,” the AP reports, citing documents obtained by the Albuquerque Journal.

Roswell will be sending the equine meat not to aliens but to Europe and Asia, which to many Americans is pretty much the same thing. They eat horses in Europe and Asia, don’t they?

We’ve been down this road before, a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences. In 2006, responding to an uproar over slaughterhouse killings of the iconic American animal, Congress banned the use of Department of Agriculture funds to inspect the dwindling number of horse meat plants in the U.S. No inspection, no meat. The plants closed.

The result? The state of the American horse worsened: more neglect, abandonment, and illegal trucking of the big critters to chop shops in Canada and Mexico.

Congress reversed the measure in November. Now what?

Read the AP story here.

Tibet Burning

The International Campaign for Tibet today released a video of the January self-immolation of Tibetan Losang Jamyang in the city of Aba. A former monk turned to activism, he was 22. At least thirty Tibetans have set themselves ablaze in the last year.

Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi was 26 when he set himself on fire in protest of his country’s attacks on his dignity and liberty, attacks at once vast and maddeningly granular–controls over speech and worship, controls over association, controls over where and how to sell fruit. Bouazizi ignited the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring. Losang Jamyang ignited only himself.

China is not Tunisia, not Egypt, not Yemen, not Syria. China is not even the former Soviet Union. But it is a country of fruit vendors too.

See the video here

WARNING: GRAPHIC FOOTAGE