Stray Thoughts: Ambulances, Shipping Containers, Balloon Warfare

Observations on books, people, and the news…

In “Stray Thoughts,” I offer a semi-biweekly mixture of grumpy complaints, pleasant musings, and groveling apologies.

  • I was in a New York City diner two nights ago and something disturbing happened. It was about 2am, and a woman was sitting alone in the next booth. She was disheveled and possibly homeless, and looked unwell. She had been eating a plate of food, but then sprawled herself along the seat and fell asleep. Someone in the restaurant must have called 911, because an ambulance showed up. They parked directly in front of the entrance and left the flashing lights on, and through the large windows the lights filled the restaurant and were overwhelmingly dazzling. The two paramedics approached the woman and told her to sit up. She mumbled a refusal. They insisted. As she finally sat up, bleary, they told her she would need to leave with them and that she should pay her bill. She replied that she had no money. The paramedics became upset, one of them asking her why she would order food if she couldn’t pay for it, and telling her she’d need to pay before they left. While the paramedics stood issuing her instructions as she muttered and fumbled, a young man at the front of the restaurant quietly approached a server and paid her bill. He then told the paramedics he had paid for her. They looked vaguely annoyed, and told her she should be grateful that a stranger just paid for her. The woman did not seem to comprehend, and just made a noise. Then the paramedics took her out to the ambulance. In the hour or so I stayed in the restaurant, the ambulance didn’t leave, and kept its lights on. 
  • Here’s why I was disturbed: The paramedics did not act like health professionals. They acted like cops. At first, I thought they were cops. Their uniform was similar, and the dazzling flashing lights were like police lights, and had the same bewildering effect. They were more concerned with whether the woman had paid her debts than whether she was okay. They had very clear contempt for her, treating her as a nuisance who was bothering restaurant patrons and needed to be removed. She wasn’t actually bothering anyone, of course; I was sitting in the next booth and had barely noticed her, and there were plenty of spare booths in the diner. But the paramedics were aggressive and unsympathetic in the way that many cops are. Incidents like the one I saw must happen constantly all across the country: homeless people and drug addicts (I don’t know whether the woman was intoxicated or on drugs, though it seemed somewhat likely) not being cared for with compassion, but being “policed” even by those who are supposed to be selflessly devoted to the improvement of health. The flashing lights were totally unnecessary, and made the whole diner feel like a police raid. And, of course, how typical of America that the issue of whether you can pay the bill is more important than whether you will live or die.
  • Of course, there’s much more to say about the economics of ambulances. A reader recently drew my attention to news reporting on an incident in Boston, in which a woman got her leg caught by a subway train and a huge crowd of people gathered to free her. Of course, most media reports focused on the group of “good samaritans.” But the story had a darker side, reported lower in the article: During one heartbreaking moment of the life-or-death drama, the victim implored her rescuers not to call 911 because she said she couldn’t afford the cost of the ambulance, the Boston Globe reported. “Awful scene on the orange line,” [Globe reporter Maria] Cramer wrote. “A woman’s leg got stuck in the gap between the train and the platform. It was twisted and bloody. Skin came off. She’s in agony and weeping. Just as upsetting she begged no one call an ambulance. “It’s $3000,” she wailed. “I can’t afford that.” In what kind of country should anyone have to think about such a thing during an emergency?
  • We have just been sent a review copy of Jason Stanley’s upcoming book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. I welcome any book on how fascism works, of course, since it’s something we all ought to try to understand. But I don’t think Stanley is right to put the emphasis on the idea of an “us and them.” The “mechanisms of fascist politics,” he says, “weave a myth of a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ based in a romanticized fictional past featuring ‘us’ and no ‘them,’ and supported by a resentment for a corrupt liberal elite, who take our hard-earned money and threaten our traditions. ‘They’ are lazy criminals on whom freedom would be wasted… ‘They’ mask their destructive goals with the language of liberalism… ‘We are industrious and law-abiding, having earned our freedoms through work; ‘they’ are lazy, perverse, corrupt, and decadent.”  Why don’t I like this way of framing fascism? Because it goes a long way toward suggesting that leftist politics are themselves similar to fascism. “We are the 99%” while they are the lazy, undeserving, corrupt capitalist criminals, who use the “language of liberalism” while taking our hard-earned money and destroying our culture. Now, there’s actually some good in warning of the danger of binaries like this: If you get carried away with war against the reactionaries, you can end up committing horrible crimes in the name of economic justice. But a “corrupt liberal elite” is not necessarily a fascist myth; sometimes there are actually corrupt elites! Sometimes people do mask destructive goals in the language of liberalism, and sometimes industrious, hard-working people do have their wealth appropriated. “Fascism” is, of course, difficult to define precisely (like many other political abstractions, including democracy, liberalism, and socialism), but personally I would incorporate rhetoric of “strength” and “weakness,” an aspiration toward might, dominance, and power and a contempt for those who are weak and marginal. Whether “us and them” rhetoric is objectionable depends on who the “us and them” are; it would be odd to have lectured an abolitionist group about avoiding divisive “us and them” rhetoric about slaveholders.
  • The National Review has an amusing article accusing Bill deBlasio of having turned New York City into a socialist hellscape. Now, I am not really a New York City person, and won’t quibble with the “hellscape” part, but I visited New York pre-“socialism” and I’m fairly sure the features of the city the National Review laments were fully present in the Bloomberg years. Just read their description: “One needs to walk only a block or two in any direction in America’s largest metropolis to witness the borderline dystopian cesspool that New York City has become. Litter. Garbage. Filth. Homeless people are camped on sidewalks, benches, and storefronts. Drug addicts casually light up and shoot up al fresco. Blaring taxi and limousine horns pierce the air at all hours of the day and night. Bicycles speed the wrong way on one-way thoroughfares (often through red lights), weave through moving traffic, menace pedestrians, and mock the taxpayer-funded Vision Zero street-safety boondoggle.” Is it even worth the effort of mentioning that “blaring taxi horns” were a ubiquitous feature of the city in its Midnight Cowboy and Mean Streets days? The NR writers say that thanks to the left, New York City “has become a mecca of modern urban bedlam.” New York City! The place that has defined “urban bedlam” for a couple of centuries! As you read the article, though, it becomes clear that they mostly just despise homeless drug addicts, saying that “shameless vagrants” now do drugs openly without anyone stopping them. First, of course, nobody should stop them, because drug use shouldn’t be a crime. Second, if you don’t like people doing hard drugs, how about treating drug abuse as a medical issue and guaranteeing good healthcare? As ever, the right-wing plan is to simply throw desperate people in jail and then lecture them on their failure of personal responsibility.
  • A recent New York Times article on the condition of children in U.S. immigration jails (I’m not going to call them “detention facilities”) includes the account of a 12-year-old girl named Leticia separated from her mother and incarcerated in South Texas. One of the institutional rules was “no mail” so Letitica had to write letters to her mom in secret and keep a stack of them in a folder to give to her mother when they were reunited. In the article it’s a small detail, but it’s worth noting more clearly just how inhumane this is. The right to communicate with the outside world is a basic one for prisoners. The Geneva Convention guarantees it to prisoners of war, even though one can imagine a far greater justification for denying enemy soldiers the right than denying small Guatemalan children in the 21st-century U.S. Keeping children from contact with their parents is a different and additional crime alongside keeping children separate from their parents, and we should treat it as its own category of wrongdoing.
  • Also on immigration: Here’s a horrifying story that nobody ever reported on properly when it happened and that has escaped public attention for far too long.
  • A reader writes: Dear Mr Robinson: Your comment on the American Dream mall to be built in New Jersey laments the blocky building against an overcast sky in the photo. I’m afraid it’s rather worse than that. That particular building is in the Meadowlands Sports Complex, also home to the NFL’s Jets and Giants. The reason they designed the exterior that way, and I wish I were joking, is to look like stacks of shipping containers since that stretch of the NJ Turnpike also goes by the ports at Newark, Elizabeth, and Bayonne. As locals we think it looks a bit more like Lego, and pretty silly at that, but no one ever accused capitalists of having good taste. Kind regards, Erin — My God. What kind of country intentionally builds buildings to look like shipping containers? Truly, neoliberalist architecture has reached a new low. 
  • I recently wrote an article on myths about socialism, suggesting that if people wanted to be honest about the history of socialism, they needed to look at the American Socialist Party, which actually had a pretty good political record in the early 1900s. The Socialist Party elected a thousand people to office around the country and when it was under a Socialist mayor, Milwaukee was considered very well-governed. A number of people wrote in to make an excellent point: To this day, Milwaukee is an extremely racially segregated city, and nobody should discuss its 1940s record as a “well-governed” municipality without acknowledging the long history of racism there. I agree, and I feel foolish for not addressing this aspect. It’s very important to do what I didn’t do, which is to emphasize that whatever we may be able to learn from the American Socialist Party’s model, we also have to understand and discuss its racist and sexist elements. These were not only shameful, but they actually contributed to the failure of socialist politics; the white men in charge of the party were contemptuous of women, for example, and drew a distinction between the cause of socialism and the cause of women’s equality, excluding half of their potential allies from participation. Ira Kipnis, in The American Socialist Movement 1897 to 1912, writes about the party’s attitude toward women and its result: “Although the party platform demanded complete political and economic equality for women, equality was to come as a gift presented by man to woman out of his infinite generosity… [When women] were ‘tolerated’ in Socialist locals, they were not treated as equals, but ‘regarded… as useful only to make cakes for tea-parties or ‘fancy things’ to sell at fairs for raising funds. Party meetings were frequently held in saloons where the few women members would not attend, and when women were used as propagandists, they were used as ‘attractions’ to appeal to the masculine vote… Of the 50,000 dues-paying Socialists in 1909, only 2,000 were women. A large proportion of party members had not considered it worth their time to recruit even their wives and sisters.” Kipnis says that female Socialists resented the sexism and organized against it, even threatening to split off into their own party. It’s clear that the spread of socialism was inhibited by misogyny, with a colossal amount of potential enthusiasm for the party squandered by men who thought their wives were fit only for the making of “fancy things.” But while strong anti-racism and anti-sexism is pragmatically necessary for building the broad coalition necessary for political success, it should more importantly be a core moral part of the left’s position. The Socialists who excluded women knew this, because it was in the party platform, but they were governed by their biases rather than their stated principles.
  • Mike Freiheit is an incredible illustrator who has produced work for nearly every single one of our print editions. He’s got a new book out, Monkey Chef, that’s well worth buying. It’s a graphic memoir about his time working on a South African primate sanctuary as a chef for the monkeys. Everything Mike does is great. Also, while I’m plugging our contributors’ products: Economist Rob Larson, who has written before for us about how pervasive “externalities” are, has a fantastic new book called Capitalism vs. Freedom. I think I’ve mentioned it already on here but I want to mention it lots of times because it thoroughly makes the basic left case against free market ideology. Rob shares the Current Affairs spirit: a combination of rigorous, evidence-based reasoning with humor and a sense of the absurd.
  • Books I am reading now: Finishing up Seymour Hersh’s Reporter and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. I shan’t talk about Sassoon, since World War I is too depressing for me to spend more than a small portion of my day thinking about it. A brief and predictable word on Hersh, though. John Le Carre isn’t wrong in his blurb for the book that every aspiring reporter should read it. People often talk about “shoe leather” journalism where reporters “actually get out in the field” but I always wondered what that meant. How do you find the story? Who do you even call? By telling us exactly how he found his leads, Hersh provides important lessons in what you actually do if you want to do investigative journalism. It involves figuring out who might know something, finding them in person, being really nice to them, and talking to them for a long time until they disclose something. You find out in the book why real journalism is so resource-intensive; it can involve following dozens of leads that go nowhere until you find one that does, and it requires a whole lot of patience and ingenuity. (Witness Hersh’s story of how he tracked down William Calley.) I don’t have that kind of diligence myself, but Hersh’s book shows exactly why we need it and what it can yield.
  • Whenever I write about George Orwell positively, I usually get someone pointing out that Orwell was a snitch who sent a list of suspected communists to the British government. I think this decision was indefensible, and it should diminish our respect for Orwell. But I also believe in taking into account the totality of the circumstances. Orwell turned in the list in 1949. At this point, he had been sick with tuberculosis for quite some time, and he would die the next year. When you read Orwell’s diaries from this time in his life, they are sad: He is frequently bedridden and is incapable of much thought or writing. I do not think turning over names of leftists to the government is acceptable, but it was the action of a very sick man. And the Orwell I admire is the Orwell of 1936-37, not the Orwell of 1949. It does go to show, though, that even the people who are in many ways the “best” available role models often have deep flaws. It is hard to answer the question of what flaws are so bad that we can no longer in good conscience admire a person. But I know that we have to take the good and leave the bad, and should be wary of any idols or heroes. 
  • Israel’s crimes get worse. Yes, it has passed a disturbing new law that says only Jewish Israelis are granted the right of self-determination. But also, members of the Israeli government, frustrated at the success that young Palestinians have had in destroying Israeli property by sending flaming balloons across the Gaza border, have advocated shooting and killing the balloon-senders, who are frequently children and teenagers. The idea of murdering children for setting balloons on fire was so sickening that even the Israeli military chief objected to doing it, leading to a confrontation, according to the Financial Times. It’s a bad sign when child-murder is considered a matter of debate. 
  • Bari Weiss, the courageous New York Times columnist who reports on the persecuted dissidents in the “intellectual dark web,” has been rewarded with a $10,000 writing prize from the Reason Foundation, who are grateful to her for her efforts to stick up for conservatives against attempts to “silence” them. I have written before that these thinkers are pretty loud for being so “silenced,” and I never seem to stop hearing about them. Curious, that. Anyway, congratulations to Bari. 

If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation, purchasing a subscription, or supporting our podcast on Patreon. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.

More In: Featured

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue


A wonderful spring issue touching on important issues such as child liberation, whether humans really love animals, why Puerto Rico's political status remains a problem, what Islamic finance can teach us, and how 'terrorism' has become a shape-shifting word. Welcome to the Manos-Fair, and enjoy Luxury British Pants, among other delightful amusements!

The Latest From Current Affairs