Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Hope & A Prayer For 2012

Ah, now a dose of Realpolitik for this blog. The prospects for 2012 don't promise any improvement over 2011. Welcome to the winter of our discontent. Summertime, when the livin' is easy, is beyond our grasp. If this is (fair & balanced) weltschmerz, so be it.

[x Russia In Global Affairs]
The Cold War And The Post-Cold War World
By Anatol Lieven

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The best comment on the end of the Cold War and its consequences was made by an anonymous German wit quoted by the British novelist John Le Carre, in a joke that “the right side lost the Cold War but the wrong side won it.” This is not to suggest that Soviet Communism and American democracy were morally equivalent, because they were not. Rather, it is to point to the truly appalling failure of the United States to use in a positive way the “unipolar moment” of U.S. global dominance that followed the Soviet Union’s disappearance. Twenty years after the end of the USSR, the unipolar moment — and with it, the post-Cold War era — are now clearly over. The shape of the next era is very unclear and pretty frightening — but whatever it is, it will involve a vastly reduced level of U.S. power and influence.

Of course, the power of the U.S.A. during the “unipolar moment” was greatly exaggerated, not least by Americans themselves. I vividly remember during my time in Washington that not only neo-conservatives but Democratic intellectuals alike would make statements to the effect that “America is so powerful that it can do anything it likes in the world if it really decides it wants to.” Foreign Policy magazine had a cover story about the Bush administration’s foreign and security team with a headline that read “The Committee That Runs the World”.

This was always garbage. America’s economic domination of the world had declined steadily since what was in economic terms the truly “unipolar moment” after the Second World War. This moment was due to the fact that both Europe and Japan were economically ruined by the Second World War. Once they recovered and other major economic players entered the world stage, U.S. economic dominance, and with it, some of U.S. influence, were bound to decline. The relative decline not only of the U.S.A. but of Europe (and indeed, once energy and raw materials are excluded, of Russia) was especially inevitable as soon as major Asian countries were able successfully to develop capitalist manufacturing sectors with skilled workers who could be paid a small fraction of Western wages.

Furthermore, even at its highest point, U.S. economic dominance did not necessarily equate to military supremacy, in part because of the unwillingness of ordinary Americans to make the necessary sacrifices. Theoreticians of international power sometimes forget that in the end all power is local and relative: it is power that can be brought to bear in a particular place or on a particular issue, relative to the power that other states or forces are able and willing to bring to bear. When it came to major U.S. military operations during the Cold War, America was fought to a bloody draw in Korea, lost on points in Vietnam, and (on a much smaller scale) lost to Hezbollah in Beirut by a knockout.

Vietnam in particular looks forward to the present U.S. experience in Afghanistan, both because of the American people’s lack of appetite for long-drawn out, inconclusive foreign conflicts, but also because of the way in which, in both cases, all America’s wealth and the power of America’s ideological example did not enable America to create client states in Saigon or Kabul which would be able to win the support of their own people and defeat America’s and their own enemies without the help of U.S. ground troops. So, rather than a feature of America’s declining power in recent years, what is happening in Afghanistan can be seen as part of a long-running pattern — and of course one which also includes multiple Soviet failures to create effective client regimes in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Indeed, long before the Soviet Union collapsed, Soviet failures helped to mask the beginnings of U.S. decline. Of these, by far the greatest was of course the failure of Communism as a system of government, and in international terms the failure to maintain Communist rule and Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe without repeated military interventions. Within the Soviet Union, Communist rule depended on a combination of repression with a tissue of propagandist lies about the present and — perhaps even more importantly — the Soviet past. When these were dissolved under Gorbachev, the resulting truths helped to bring the whole system down in ruins.

In world affairs, specific Soviet defeats helped mask longer-term American problems. Thus Soviet hopes of dominating the Middle East were wrecked by President Anwar Sadat’s decision in the mid-1970s to take Egypt out of the Soviet and into the American camp. After that, America’s power in the region was dominant, and after 1991, hegemonic. Yet within the region, US power was always contested by some countries and groups, and America never succeeded in creating a stable regional security order responsive to its wishes — and of course to those of its disastrous “ally” Israel, whose actions (and U.S. lack of will to control them) constantly created new hostility to the United States.

Elsewhere in the world, Soviet defeats also masked longer term U.S. failures. Thus the economic defeat of Soviet-backed Communist guerrillas in much of Central America in the 1980s masked the failure of the U.S. to promote successful economic development, state-building and real democracy in its own backyard. The defeat of the Communists there helped reassure Americans that they could safely ignore this region — except for pressure to conform to U.S. wishes in the “war on drugs.” The result has been the gradual disintegration of states in the region — most notably Mexico — which was only recently noticed by policymakers in Washington but is beginning to pose a real threat to vital U.S. interests.

In Africa and elsewhere too, U.S. models of development and governance were faltering long before the great crisis of the U.S.-led world economic order began in 2008, in part because of America’s inability to back up its recommendations with serious aid. And, of course, for several years before the Cold War ended, the Chinese “Communist” state was laying the basis for the economic revolution which within a decade or so seems likely to replace the U.S.A. with China as the world’s biggest economy.

The single greatest factor in masking U.S. global weakness after the end of the Cold War was however a U.S. regional success, in the region to which the greatest U.S. attention had always been directed: namely in Europe. Here, the near adulation of the United States among Central European peoples liberated from Communism and the support of the governments of the region for the expansion of NATO did a tremendous amount to boost American triumphalism — a triumphalism shared by the elites of both U.S. political parties. The experience of democratization and economic reform in association with the expansion of U.S. power and influence was then treated as a paradigm that could be exported to the rest of the world. This was as true of liberals like George Soros as it was of neo-conservatives like Paul Wolfowitz.

In the process, these Americans forgot two vitally important facts specific to post-Communist Central Europe: Firstly, that the expansion both of democracy and of NATO was crucially linked to the genuine promise of European Union membership, with all the tremendous concrete economic benefits which that brought (or used to bring). Indeed, it is only in Central Europe that one can really use the Western ideological cliché of “the path to democracy and the free market” with any intellectual seriousness, in the sense of a clear path to a fixed goal: because here, the path was the EU accession process and the goal was the acquis communautaire. Elsewhere in the world, countries have always pursued many very different paths to very different goals. Secondly, the Central European peoples (and conservative populist parties) could be persuaded to swallow the often wrenchingly painful economic shifts required not only because of a faith in Western models but because of a nationalist belief that it was necessary to join the West at all costs so as to get away from and defend against Russia.

It should hardly need pointing out (but really did, when talking with many Americans of both parties in those years) that neither the Muscovite menace nor the European Union promise can be replicated when trying to promote pro-American democracy in Egypt or Pakistan. Instead — and this is a point that you were very ill-advised to make in Washington if you valued your own interests — the mass hostility which in Central Europe was directed at the former Soviet hegemon ended in the Muslim world to be directed against the United States.

However, even if one recognizes the fact that underlying U.S. weaknesses have been developing for a long time, the extent of U.S. failure in the Cold War period, and the speed of U.S. decline in recent years, have nonetheless been striking. Reinforcing U.S. decline has been that of America’s European allies. In the 1990s in Yugoslavia, the Europeans proved their incapacity for military action (though the British and French have recouped that to some extent with their successful air campaign against the forces of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya). More recently, the EU has demonstrated its inherent incapacity for economic crisis management, to the point where its single greatest project — the euro — is now in serious danger. So one can well speak of a decline not only of the U.S.A. but of the West in general.

The reasons for this are partly external, but above all reflect President Abraham Lincoln’s statement that “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves”; echoed in the words of President Eisenhower that in the last resort, “Only Americans can hurt America”. To a much lesser extent than in the case of the Soviet Union, but still to a significant extent, the seeds of the decline of U.S. power can be found in America’s own domestic system and culture.

Soviet Communism contributed to these domestic U.S. flaws, though not at all as the Soviet leadership itself imagined: not because of the Communist threat itself, but because of America’s reaction to that threat. This was obviously true of America’s military intervention in Vietnam, which produced a split in American society which has never healed to this day (and helps explain some of the pathological hatred of President Obama on the U.S. Right).

Even more important however, were two other effects on the U.S. system and the U.S. psyche. Firstly, the Communist threat, and the monstrous nature of Communist crimes, gave a tremendous boost to what the great American historian and thinker Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style” in American life. This had deeper roots in aspects of American religious and nativist thought, but grew enormously during the Cold War. Adapted by their own purposes by oligarchically-owned right-wing mass media, it became a central part of right-wing culture and was extended to any Americans whom the right wing hated.

Reinforced by racism and an apocalyptically-tinged fundamentalist religion, this has produced a situation in which a very large proportion of Republican voters believe that President Obama is a Muslim socialist, an anti-White racist or both, and a smaller but still not insignificant minority believe — I am not making this up — that he may actually be Antichrist. Not metaphorically Antichrist, or symbolically Antichrist — no, Antichrist himself, in person. Extreme Christian religious views in the U.S. help boost the pro-Israel lobby, with its truly disastrous impact on U.S. strategy and U.S. interests in the Muslim world.

This cultural legacy of the Cold War, coupled with the economic and social decline of the White middle classes, visible since the 1970s but enormously accelerated since 2008, has helped to produce the Tea Parties and the associated radicalization of the Republican Party; contributing in turn to a situation in the U.S. in which many serious issues can no longer be seriously debated by leaders of one of the two main political parties among themselves, and where any debate between the parties has ceased to be a rational exchange of opinions and become an exchange of hate-filled slogans. In turn, this has combined to truly catastrophic effect with a U.S. Constitution drawn up by a late 18th century enlightened oligarchy to provide a check on government power. Once this system of checks and balances is infused with blind partisan hatred and a Republican willingness to block at all costs even moderate measures by Democrats, the result is not only to cripple U.S. government at home but to drastically undermine the image of U.S. democracy abroad.

This hatred is due in part to the persistence in the United States of conservative religious forces which have a deep cultural and ideological hatred of many aspects of modernity itself, and regard liberal political opponents as — literally — bound for hell. Perhaps even more serious is the way in which American conservative religion is now promoting hostility to educated elites in general, including most notably scientists. This originated in hostility to secularism, and in particular of course belief in “creationism” as against “evolution”. In recent years it has tended to extend to a wider skepticism about scientists and scientific evidence, most notably in the area of climate change. This risks undermining the claim to epitomize scientific modernity which has been at the very core of America’s claim to global leadership.

While it is well known that the Soviet Union’s own crazed global ambitions and paranoia vis-à-vis the United States produced a level of Soviet military spending that the economy simply could not support, it is also true that this produced U.S. military spending which, while much lower in proportion to the much greater Soviet economy, has become more and more damaging to the American economy, in part by producing technological marvels (stealth fighters, drone aircraft) which mask America’s technological decline in other areas, and the increasingly desperate need for massive state investment in research and development. The militarized nature of the U.S. state and especially its security elites helped shape the militarized response of the Bush administration to 9/11, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The last disastrous impact of Cold War Communism on the post-Cold War world has been on the democratic Left in other parts of the world. In the first decades of the Cold War, this effect was limited because capitalist elites themselves were still deeply influenced by the experience of the Great Depression and the disasters to which it led, and recognized the need for policies of social welfare and social solidarity. Republican presidents Eisenhower and Nixon were both in many ways to the left of President Obama in this regard. As these memories faded, however, in the United States at least, the slur of Communism was used with increasing effect to discredit and even bar from serious discussion even moderate measures of social reform. The result has been a dreadful vicious circle in which the White middle-classes have suffered more and more from America’s unconstrained free market economy — and have reacted not by turning to the moderate left, but by hysterical demands for yet further deregulation, and for tax cuts for the rich which further increase social inequality and further sap the ability of the U.S. state to carry out the vital investments necessary both to regenerate the U.S. economy and to underpin U.S. global power.

The result has not only been to transform the Republican Party, but also to intimidate most Democrats from pursuing serious social or economic reforms. In Europe, meanwhile, the residual admiration of much of the intellectual Left for Soviet Communism contributed to the collapse of the Left in the 1990s, especially in France (though of course the main reason for this was deeper changes in the Western and world economies). Today, Western capitalism is facing its greatest self-generated crisis since the 1930s — and serious social democratic alternatives are nowhere to be seen outside intellectual discussions.

Rather than a straightforward case of a long struggle ending in Soviet collapse and American victory, the Cold War may perhaps be seen by future historians as a battle in which one side was indeed eventually destroyed, but the other suffered a deep wound which has permanently undermined its health. The great beneficiary both of the last two decades of the Cold War and of American errors in the Post-Cold War has been China. For a long time, China benefited enormously from the legacy of the quasi-alliance with the U.S. created in the 1970s to oppose the Soviet Union. For at least a decade after the end of the Cold War, Americans were still distracted from China’s rise by the continued obsession of much of their political and security elites with an alleged threat from Moscow. As for U.S. strategy in the Muslim world, much of it has been so bizarrely contrary to America’s own interests that it might as well have been designed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

However, the collapse of the USSR and the decline of the United States does not by any means necessarily mean that in the next historical era we will see the global triumph of China. Firstly, even if China overtakes the U.S. economically, its economy will still be vastly smaller in both scale and global reach than was the U.S. economy at the time when the foundations of U.S. global hegemony were laid after 1945.

Secondly, it is not at all clear that the Chinese leadership is looking to imitate, challenge or replace the U.S. global role. Much has been made recently of China’s greater aggressiveness when it comes to territorial claims to islands in neighboring seas, but these are issues which stir up Chinese emotional nationalism. It is not just that this nationalism affects the Chinese military elites directly (military elites are often a bit funny that way) but that with ideological Communism now dead, it is through a mixture of economic success and nationalist appeals that the regime has sought to appeal to the masses – and as the shortest glance at the Chinese blogosphere indicates, the educated masses at least are intensely nationalist.

When it comes to the expansion of Chinese power elsewhere in the world, however, the Chinese elites remain extremely cautious. U.S. errors and failures in the Middle East would seem to give anti-U.S. forces in the Chinese establishment ample chances to expand their influence. They have not exploited them. Even when it comes to helping their old ally Pakistan, Chinese policy has been far more cautious than either some Chinese rhetoric or some U.S. fears would suggest. Even more strikingly, in October 2011 European leaders in effect begged China to come to the help of the staggering euro, something that would have given China immense influence in Europe and symbolically and actually reversed the world pattern of the past 200 years. The Chinese looked closely at the financial risks involved, and firmly said no. The United States for its part is no longer financially capable of rescuing the euro even if the U.S. Congress and people would remotely accept the sacrifices involved.

Rather than a future in which Chinese hegemony will replace that of the United States, therefore, we seem to be rapidly entering a world in which no country will exercise anything resembling true world leadership. This bears a sinister resemblance to the 1920s, when the United States had replaced Britain as the world’s leading economic power, but was wholly unwilling to shoulder additional burdens of global leadership. U.S. capitalism then engaged in a frenzy of capitalist speculation which undermined first its own economy and then that of the whole world. Even at their worst, the results for the world are unlikely to be so bad this time round, because great powers do not harbor forces of insane totalitarian fascism or communism with aspirations to conquer and transform the world. Or at least, so we must hope and pray. Ω

[Anatol Lieven is a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation. His latest book, Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World, coauthored with John Hulsman, was published in 2006. Lieven holds a B.A. in history and a doctorate in political science from Jesus College, Cambridge.]

Copyright © 2011 Russia in Global Affairs

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Friday, December 30, 2011

Roll Over, Whole Foods! Make Way For Trader Joe's!

Trader Joe's will open its first Texas store in Fort Worth in the spring of 2012; a second store will follow in The Woodlands — a Houston suburb. The hipsters in Austin hope for a Trader Joe's in 2013. This blogger has never been in a Trader Joe's, but he was served a glass of the Charles Shaw Winery's merlot in 2004 and learned of the legend of "Two Buck Chuck" because all varieties of this brand at that time were sold in Trader Joe's for $1.99 per bottle. This blog featured a pair of discussions of "Two Buck Chuck" here and here. If this is (fair & balanced) consideration of comestibles, so be it.

[x Los Angeles 'Zine]
Enchanted Aisles
By Dave Gardetta

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A man named Joe Coulombe purchased a string of six convenience stores named Pronto and reshaped them into a grocery business that would become the city’s most influential food provider. His early experiments at the new Trader Joe’s were fitful: He sold Bible bread for 69 cents and Playboy at 10 percent off; he developed Kodacolor prints and ran weekly specials on can openers. What Coulombe eventually landed on sounds simple today, but no one had thought of it before: He grafted the gourmet store onto the convenience store onto the health food store onto the liquor store (dropping, of course, the Playboy).

He told anyone who would ask him, “I sell food, where other markets sell groceries,” and beneath one fluorescent lighting system he gathered the cuisines of Mexico, Italy, China, Greece, France, and Japan long before most Angelenos had heard of sushi or tasted pad thai. He sold whole bean coffee years before Starbucks debuted in 1971, and he became the country’s largest importer of Dijon mustard and Brie—the latter because cheese was still considered health food in the ’70s.

In short, Coulombe built a lifestyle acculturation machine the likes of which had never been seen. Walking his bright aisles, shoppers have assimilated unfamiliar cuisines, ambitious food ethics, and new farming practices. If you grew up in L.A. in the ’70s, you were initiated at Trader Joe’s into French wine, English cheese, olive oil, and handmade dolmas. If you moved to L.A. in the 1980s or ’90s, you discovered a store already as iconic as palm trees and sunny days, a clientele as scrappy and aspiring or ill fitting as yourself, and a neighborhood larder that was as cheap as it was cosmopolitan. And if you finally settled down over the past decade to start a family, you watched the store become a moral compass around which a better life can be led buying organic strawberries, cage-free eggs, grass-fed beef, free-trade coffee, soy-based ice cream, kosher guacamole hummus, and vegan panang curry. The market influences eating habits as it does social routines—why else does every cocktail party open, "Stepford Wives" style, with the same array of Trader Joe’s hors d’oeuvres?

Born out of L.A.’s optimistic postwar expansion and the food revolution of the ’70s, when pamphleteers like Alice Waters in Berkeley and Michael McCarty in Santa Monica issued their screeds in squid ink on pasta plates, Coulombe’s influence cannot be overstated. He transformed the way we shop and what we eat.

But it was a German businessman named Theo Albrecht who turned Coulombe’s vision into a national phenomenon; over a period of 30 years he assembled the company into the brand it is today. He was one of Europe’s richest men when he died in July 2010 at the age of 88. He prepared for death early, securing 14 adjacent cemetery plots in 1997 at a price of about $112,000. Their landscaping, however, would have to wait until Albrecht’s company tracked down a discount on the rhododendrons and cypress and yew trees that adorn the site. In Europe Albrecht was known for cofounding the German-based grocery business Aldi with his brother, Karl, but upon his death one of the more successful store expansions in Los Angeles history also lost a guiding hand. Following Albrecht’s purchase of Trader Joe’s in 1979, the L.A.-based group of 27 markets earning $500,000 annually grew to a nationwide chain of 362 stores taking in, according to industry estimates, $8 billion a year. Along the way Trader Joe’s made corporate Hawaiian gear acceptable, introduced the ship’s bell as an intercom system, turned a $2 wine that tastes like $4 into a national frenzy, and in 2006 achieved the unthinkable, becoming the first L.A. export to find unconditional love among New Yorkers.

Albrecht was reclusive. Little was heard from him before his death—less now—but we know he enjoyed collecting typewriters and raising orchids. He lived, depending on the report, atop a forested hill overlooking the German town of Essen or on a remote island in the North Sea. He was frugal. To limit expenses he insisted that executives take notes in meetings with pencil stubs; viewing the plans of a proposed store, he once remarked, “The layout is very good, but the paper is too thick—use thinner to save money.” He was also a former soldier in Hitler’s army. Albrecht spent his military service in the Afrika Korps under General Erwin Rommel. It ended in Tunisia with his capture by American forces, whereupon he was transferred to a POW camp and held until his release after the war. At Trader Joe’s headquarters in Monrovia, news of the German businessman’s passing was managed with the same secrecy under which he’d lived. Though press reports had confirmed his death, executives were not officially notified by Aldi until Albrecht was safely beneath the rhododendrons. But his influential voice still sings from the grave. Trader Joe’s refused to comment on Albrecht; then again, the company remains compulsively mum on everything else about its inner workings.

Albrecht’s furtiveness at Trader Joe’s stems from the devastation of Essen in World War II, Germany’s postwar deprivation, and the political terror witnessed in Europe in the 1970s, when such groups as the Red Army Faction targeted industrialists like Albrecht with kidnapping and assassination, driving some into hiding. This is Albrecht’s half of the company, the self-preserving mystery at the back of the store. Trader Joe’s will not admit that Albrecht or his family ever owned the grocery chain. It will also not concede that Joe Coulombe founded the business. The corporate Web site describes only a fantasy merchant named “Trader Joe” who opened the first store. Employees can be fired if they speak to a journalist about their job, and the corporation refuses to name the providers of the 3,000 or so Trader Joe’s-brand items on its shelves. (The company does not make its own products.) Those providers, in turn, are muzzled by nondisclosure contracts. Trader Joe’s won’t even confirm that there are 3,000 items on its shelves—an eccentric trait at best, once you try envisioning, say, Apple (another steadfastly mum company) refusing to tell consumers how many products it sells. Nevertheless, the place is a warm utopia. Stepping into a Trader Joe’s after visiting a supermarket is akin to crossing the state line from New York into Vermont.

For a meager grocery store, Trader Joe’s has a supernova persona. It’s not Whole Foods, a culinary Neiman Marcus whose prices can leave you feeling mugged. It’s not Fresh & Easy, where Home Depot-style savings have been passed along by replacing workers with DIY checkout scanners. It’s certainly not Ralphs. We prize Trader Joe’s because it has auspiciously pulled off being none of the above. Yes, the parking lots are a misery, the store passageways a crush. Unless you’ve negotiated tight aisles in one of the original stores, you don’t know the meaning of “tortuous serpentine commercial space.” But for those weaned on Trader Joe’s, this is the epitome of the experience: If you can’t smash into someone while reaching for the mochi, it’s not a Trader Joe’s; all that sanctioned rubbing up against strangers produces a frisson of small-town life, the missing element in our metropolis. There’s a plucky in-house newspaper—The Fearless Flyer—offering campy stories of goings-on, and there are kids’ drawing contests, raffles, balloons (balloons!), a kitchen putting out aromatic samples of pie, and snapshots of grinning regulars pinned to the walls. All that’s needed is a knowing geezer warming himself by a blazing potbelly stove in the corner (no doubt he’s currently being product tested). Where supermarket workers suffer from an empty enthusiasm forced on them by management—“Can I help you to your car with that aspirin bottle?”—at Trader Joe’s we get genuine, convivial employees whose relationship with their stores exhibits the kind of intimacy most of us share only with our smartphones. They are nonunion but compensated better than many unionized grocery workers: Part-timers at Trader Joe’s can receive $20 an hour with full benefits, and store managers top out with an annual salary of $130,000, with matching 401Ks—pay that more than makes up for being called “first mate” and “captain” in public.

For centuries food shopping worked this way: People would go to the produce seller or dry goods store, point to what they wanted, and someone behind the counter would retrieve the items. In 1916, a Tennessee-based dry goods chain called Piggly Wiggly did something revolutionary: It let customers touch the merchandise. Piggly Wiggly was the first to offer handbaskets; shoppers were now expected to gather their own grits and hominy. Like other advanced technologies of the era—speeding locomotives on the silver screen that left moviegoers diving for the aisles—Piggly Wiggly confused people. Some felt they were shoplifting. Soon enough, like a Valentino swashbuckler, the craze went nationwide.

But Piggly Wiggly sold only dry goods. You had to find a butcher for meat, a baker for bread, a greengrocer for produce. Larger cities often had one central municipal public market where these sellers congregated. In 1914 in Los Angeles, a 32,000-square-foot public market called the White Arcade, on the corner of Pico and Main, took that municipal model private and became the precursor to supermarkets.

What food stores lacked at the time, however, was parking. Service stations had parking, and superservice stations—gasoline sellers that incorporated businesses around their perimeters—had parking. In 1924, Glendale’s Ye Market Place fused the superservice station with the public market, combining food providers with a large parking lot. This was news: In one day 11,000 cars visited the Ye Market Place just to see what the future looked like.

By 1929, the Ralphs company had pieced together one of the region’s largest chains of grocery stores, some of which—including a palatial structure at 5615 Wilshire Boulevard on the Miracle Mile and a beacon-topped castle at 171 North Lake Street in Pasadena—could fittingly be called supermarkets. They were the first of their kind in the city. Though their baroque exteriors rivaled the majestic cinema fortresses on downtown’s Broadway, their vaulted interiors were plainly functional. An unusual display arrangement—long rows of uninterrupted shelving along which shoppers could move, picking what they wanted—became an industry standard. But it was the immensity of these food halls’ floor plans that stunned customers—as much as 10,000 square feet in size, or a bit larger than an average Trader Joe’s.

What a leap that was. In the history of commerce, nothing like it has been seen before or since: A transaction model common to Mesopotamia was done away with in 14 years. And Los Angeles was the epicenter. In 1926, the western chain Skaggs Cash Stores merged with the L.A.-based Safeway company, forming a group of 750 stores that would open still more supermarkets. Another chain, Young’s Market Company, decided it would branch away from downtown L.A., bringing elegant foods to the “distant” areas of the city—which in the 1920s meant transporting the ingredients for a Waldorf salad to the corner of 7th and Union in Westlake. (Young’s named the new supermarkets Thriftimart.) The Copenhagen transplant Charles Von der Ahe sold off his line of Vons Grocerterias in 1929; a few years later his two sons rebooted Vons into a supermarket company. By 1937, L.A. had a total of 260 supermarkets, more than most states could then claim. Parking lots were standard. Baked goods were standard. More food was available to consumers than ever.


As a boy growing up in San Diego, Joe Coulombe shopped five blocks away at the local Piggly Wiggly. Today Coulombe regularly visits the first Trader Joe’s he opened 44 years ago—on Arroyo Parkway, six blocks from where he lives with his wife, Alice, and his dog, Zoe, on a tilting palisade that overlooks Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco. Their house is a species typical to the foothills of Eagle Rock and Pasadena, built midcentury by an architect fond of Richard Neutra and California light, finessed and funky, split level, with soaring windows and a lot of privacy. You can almost imagine the reclusive Theo Albrecht living here if the right security measures were installed. “Whenever we would visit Theo in Germany,” says Alice, “he would push a button, and metal bars would slide down over the windows.”

In the past year Coulombe, who is 81, has fought off a superbacterium with $10,000 worth of antibiotics and a good acupressurist. He is healthy these days: Wearing a rumpled bomber jacket and walking Zoe along the arroyo, he resembles retired test pilot Chuck Yeager out for a stroll. He paints. His canvases are all over the house, stacked three high on the walls and favoring the kaleidoscopic palette of deep colors David Hockney employed in the ’70s. Coulombe has worked steadily since leaving Trader Joe’s in 1989, serving on a number of corporate boards that include Sport Chalet, Bristol Farms, and Cost Plus. Six years ago he was approached by a man named Jeffrey Lubell, who owned a $3 million jeans company named True Religion. Lovell wanted to expand but didn’t know how. Coulombe assembled a four-person board, raised cash, and True Religion is now a $790 million company with 115 stores.

When Coulombe left San Diego and arrived at Stanford in 1949, he knew two cuisines: His paternal grandmother’s New England boiled dinner and his mother’s take on the diet of Tennessee, where her people were from. “I would call that ‘Southern suicide cuisine,’ ” says Coulombe. “It was a lot of bacon fat poured on greens.” At a mixer he met a girl named Alice Steere, whose father was a Stanford professor, and at the Steeres’ table was served foods he’d never encountered: Dungeness crab and sourdough bread, steamed artichokes, jug wine, olive oil. “Think of it,” says Coulombe. “I’d never even seen olive oil.” He earned an MBA at Stanford, which, according to Coulombe, was then a near-worthless piece of parchment. “The degree was new,” he says, “and corporations couldn’t make sense of it.” Palo Alto was a different town. There was no venture capital, no training for entrepreneurs. Coulombe—a risk-taker at heart—tested for a job at General Electric but was told his psychological profile made him a bad fit at the regimented company. It was 1954, and his options, he says, “were none.”

Eventually Coulombe was hired by Owl Rexall and asked to come up with a store that could help stanch the company’s losses. By the 1950s, supermarkets had begun stocking health and beauty aids, killing the profits of drugstores like Rexall. The Stanford grad thought small: Sav-On had combined the drugstore with the supermarket, so Coulombe bred the drugstore with the convenience store and came up with Pronto. Just six Prontos were built in L.A. before Justin Dart, Rexall’s president, went against the unanimous protest from his board and acquired a company called Tupperware. Instantly Tupperware outperformed Rexall, and Coulombe received orders to liquidate Pronto. Instead he left Rexall, buying the Prontos on his way out the door. In the span of several years he built 12 more and, by his early thirties, found himself the owner of a mini fiefdom.

It was around this time, in 1965, that a Texas-based convenience store company named 7-Eleven set its sights on L.A.—and on driving Pronto out of business. Coulombe considered fighting them, but, he says, “I knew eventually they were going to kill me.” 7-Eleven quickly bought out Speedee Mart, a chain of 100 convenience stores, then began converting them to Slurpee dispensaries. Coulombe guessed he had less than a few years to think up a concept that could compete. Luckily, he was an avid magazine reader. In Scientific American he learned that a new class of overeducated, underpaid adults was being produced by the burgeoning college system. Sophisticated shoppers were not necessarily wealthy shoppers, Coulombe theorized; they were educated buyers trapped in economic stasis. He decided to mate the convenience store with the liquor store, and that was Trader Joe’s, “Phase I.” His customers would be the classical musician, the journalist, the teacher, the young doctor. In a different article Coulombe read that the more education a person had, the more they drank, so he stocked 70 bourbons and about 100 scotches. (“I had penciled out what a union journeyman made to figure what I would pay my employees,” he says, “and adding liquor was the easiest way to fund those wages.”) Coulombe read about a jet known as the 747 that promised inexpensive air travel to Europe; Trader Joe’s would need to broaden its tastes to match the new traveler. In another magazine Coulombe discovered that the earth’s biosphere was threatened. Overnight, he says, he became a self-professed “Green” and spliced the health food store and the gourmet store onto Trader Joe’s. This was “Phase II” of Coulombe’s company.

Finally, Coulombe gave Trader Joe’s something most grocery chains didn’t have: a personality. It would have its own take on the world—cultivated but casual, spontaneous, moderately liberal, and smart. When you walked into a Trader Joe’s, you would know the store’s tone and its attitude. The personality that Coulombe conceived remains to this day the company’s voice: The Fearless Flyer.

Coulombe continued to tinker with Trader Joe’s. In 1972, he devised what he calls “Trader Joe’s, Phase III.” At that time the trend in grocery merchandising was bigger. Throughout the ’70s, supermarkets were headed toward becoming the 40,000-square-foot behemoths of today that can carry 50,000 items. Yet such steroidal markets would encounter drawbacks to their muscled dimensions. Eighty percent of supermarket shopping time is spent moving from product to product. Half of all store trips are for five purchases or less, and customers on such trips aren’t searching for sale items—price does not alter the behavior of someone looking for only a handful of things. What did this mean for supermarkets? As their floor plans expanded, their sales volume per square foot shrank. They were forced to invent new schemes to compensate for lost profits, charging fees to manufacturers for store placement and “floating” cash (earning bank interest on the daily take).

So once again Coulombe thought small. Instead of 50,000 shelved items, he would drop his number from 6,000 to 1,000. If supermarkets sold 20 kinds of cat food and 40 detergents, he would sell one of each. In doing so, Coulombe maximized the velocity of dollars entering his registers. Shoppers moving 5 feet between purchases instead of 50 pass through a store more quickly, leaving more cash behind. The average supermarket brings in $10 million to $30 million annually in sales. A Trader Joe’s one-fifth the size of a supermarket can make $1 million in a week’s time. Square foot for square foot, that Trader Joe’s outperforms an average Walmart, which would have to do $30 million in business to match it during the same period.

“I took her down to the rocker arms,” says Coulombe, describing the work he did in the late ’70s. “That’s the Trader Joe’s you know today.”


I have a long history with Trader Joe’s. I practically grew up inside the Eagle Rock store on shopping trips with my family in the 1970s. My sister worked at the Arroyo Parkway store. And three years out of high school, I moved with a girlfriend to an apartment a block from Coulombe’s original. I think we walked there every night for dinner. I recall strolling in the rain in hats we fashioned from newspaper. Melissa was 18 that year; she’s published a cookbook since. “That store introduced me to red wine, French cheese, good mustard, and baguettes,” she said when I rang her up the other day. “I remember closeouts, special finds, small producers, whims, zany employees—the place was like a beatnik girlfriend.”

I went back to the Arroyo store after that call. It was the same: The Brueghel-esque vision of hell that is the jammed parking lot. A building that looks more like a wholesale hardware outlet than a place you can buy brie en croûte and lamb vindaloo. The champignon signage that appears to be “from the desk of Sid and Marty Krofft.” Inside I found the same $3.99 wine we drank 30 years ago, a Hungarian Bull’s Blood. (I uncorked the bottle later that night; it tasted like a beatnik’s hat.) The hand-drawn chalk murals—found at every location and typically featuring scenes of the neighborhood during California’s progressive era—hung above shelving units that were angled right to left.

This “chevron” pattern is used in all Trader Joe’s stores, aisles canting left. (Americans, it turns out, move counterclockwise through grocery stores: Our first bias upon walking through the automatic glass doors is to avoid going left, maybe because we shop as we drive, on the right.) The offbeat floor arrangement complements Trader Joe’s unregimented persona: “Hey, we just threw up some shelves, and there they are.” It’s also a retail trick. Angled passageways reveal a store’s contents in profile to arriving shoppers. Rows squared with the walls (see: any supermarket) inadvertently conceal their contents from customers peering into a corridor’s mouth looking for the toothbrush display. At Trader Joe’s, chevroning opens space necessary for the stores’ midsize liquor and produce sections. A fruit and vegetable section running the length of a store, common at Ralphs, is beyond Trader Joe’s needs; the company refuses to move into the perishable fresh produce format, preferring the shelf time and savings that plastic-wrapped organic broccoli crowns offer.

Because Trader Joe’s designs its own packaging, the company can coordinate its aisles into aesthetically pleasing color fields. Walk into a Ralphs or a Pavilions and examine the shelves. Morton Salt blue clashes with La Victoria green clashes with C&H beige clashes with Prego black. It’s a mess. But Trader Joe’s has a unified palette: The ice creams match, the pizzas blend with the masalas, the soups with the stocks. Not that every Trader Joe’s product carries the company’s logo—a branding tool originally thought up by Coulombe. There’s Tom’s of Maine toothpaste, Balance bars, and all that liquor—20 percent of the stock is estimated to carry another company’s label. But the Sweet Potato Frites, the Brownie Truffle Baking Mix, the Fully Cooked Seasoned Pork Roast with Barbecue Sauce, and the Candy Cane Joe-Joe’s? All are made by businesses that have sealed a relationship with Trader Joe’s. Typically such a pact arrives after one of Trader Joe’s four top buyers—who are said to circle the globe like Predator drones seeking fresh product—lock in on a provider. (Alternately companies pitch Trader Joe’s “category” buyers over the phone.) Often Trader Joe’s chooses regional companies for the price break. The European Style Organic Yogurt found at the Arroyo Parkway store is not cultured by the same dairy that supplies the 14th Street outpost in the East Village—Trader Joe’s would lose money refrigerating and shipping yogurt cross-country. Since those dairies also don’t need to fret over shelling out cash on advertising or supermarket slotting fees, they can offer yogurt to Trader Joe’s at a discount.

While Trader Joe’s has not made the task of ferreting out its providers easy, that hasn’t stopped the industrious folks at Chowhound from trying. Every couple of years the food Web site pulls eight items from Trader Joe’s and compares ingredients, portions, packaging, and taste with a motley lineup of suspects. Their best guesses? Trader Joe’s Soyaki sauce is Soy Vay Veri Veri Sauce that has been relabeled; the Vienna Style Lager is Gordon Biersch in a different bottle; the Organic Tofu Veggie Burgers are Wildwood SprouTofu Veggie Burgers in disguise; and This Strawberry Walks into a Bar breakfast bars are really Full Circle Strawberry & Fruit Cereal Bars slumming as tarts in drag. (The coffee you drink them with is probably roasted at the Mountanos Brothers plant in San Francisco.)

When was the last time you heard someone swear they can’t survive without Wildwood SprouTofu Veggie Burgers? I’ll venture never. Yet fake-meat lovers all over the Web are religious about the Trader Joe’s version. (“God bless,” says one.) Why? Information heretics that we are, tossing out the Dewey Decimal System for the Internet’s chaos, we ironically still crave order and simplicity. You may need five apps just to make one purchase—store app, recipe app, nutrition app, pricing app, where’s the kid app?—but isn’t it sweetly…quaint to have a single veggie burger to choose from, not 20, especially if Trader Joe’s has signed off on the quality? As consumers, we’ve cleaved ourselves in two: None of us would question spending an afternoon on the laptop comparing ten digital cameras on five review sites before making our selection. Yet plunk us down in the mac and cheese aisle of any supermarket—with ten brands on display, including Kraft, Stouffer’s, and Archer Farms—and instantly we rebel against corporate plenitude. In the current historical moment, we’re vintage mossbacks when it comes to our immediate interaction with food. Ideally we want an old-timey, friendly corner store we can identify with—preferably one on the way to our organic farmers’ market—that offers us just one mac and cheese (Joe’s Diner Mac ’n Cheese, to be precise).


Trader Joe’s headquarters sits in old-timey Monrovia, a block off Myrtle Avenue, where the streetside architecture has not changed much in a century. The corporate offices are a silent presence: a stark, single-story cement bunker with windows shielded in reflective material—very un-Monrovia. Tesco, the owner of Fresh & Easy, may have a huge sign outside its headquarters, and Whole Foods has an actual store attached to the home office in Austin—but Trader Joe’s doesn’t want to be found. Frankly the bunker is a little daunting on approach. I decided I’d call.

The person on the other end of the line at the corporate offices was superfriendly. “Hey,” I said. “I’m writing a story about Trader Joe’s, about its history and Joe Coulombe, and I’d like to talk to you about it.”

“Sure,” the staffer said. “Now, off the record, and this entire conversation will be off the record, OK?”

“OK…” I agreed, not thinking. Speaking off the record is a near-sacred contract in journalism. To invoke the phrase is to ask that a journalist agree not to reveal the information that follows, and certainly not the identity of the source. It’s a shield. It protects the source—a person—from the consequences of his or her speech. As a verbal contract, it is usually broken in only the most extreme circumstances.

But in this case the words that followed the stipulation were so unusual that they seemed to qualify as an extreme circumstance: “Off the record,” I was told, “Trader Joe’s will not cooperate with you on your story.”

That’s it? Actually, that’s really smart. Trader Joe’s is so evasive on the subject of itself that it has figured out a way to shut down journalists and at the same time stop them from reporting the refusal. While even Scientology spokespeople talk on the record, stories in which journalists communicate with Trader Joe’s are almost nonexistent. As the conversation went on, I was told how Trader Joe’s turns down all media requests that involve the company’s ownership.

If Coulombe appeared in my story, the question of who owns the company would come up—and Trader Joe’s wants no part in that discussion. The last report concerning Trader Joe’s ownership has Theo Albrecht placing the company in a family trust. Now that he is dead, to whom the company has passed is a mystery. We don’t know who or what owns Trader Joe’s.

In 1977, when Albrecht first expressed interest in buying Trader Joe’s, Coulombe was relatively young—just 47 years old. “But my friends were already beginning to die of heart attacks,” he says. Coulombe was worried about federal interspousal estate taxes, which at that time were as high as 50 percent. “If I’d died,” he says, “half the worth of Trader Joe’s would have gone to the government instead of Alice.” Still, Coulombe held off from selling his business. What little he knew of Albrecht couldn’t illustrate a Fearless Flyer item.

Albrecht had wanted to be an architect as a young man. But when he returned home from North Africa following the war, he discovered that the destruction in Essen was almost total. Essen had been home to weapons producers for the Third Reich, and it was the target of a long and intense Allied bombing campaign. As a prelude to Dresden, Essen was firebombed on the evening of March 5, 1943, when 442 aircraft attacked the city, leaving some 50,000 people homeless. Albrecht gave up his dreams of becoming an architect, choosing to stay on with his mother and her struggling corner shop. Eventually he was joined by his brother, Karl. In 1961, the brothers named their newly expanding grocery company Albrecht Discount, Aldi for short. Theo kept a low profile. In fact, the most public thing he ever did was to disappear against his will.

In November 1971, Albrecht was kidnapped at gunpoint. Initially the German police were confused. It was not Baader-Meinhof or Black September that had orchestrated the abduction. Instead it was Heinz-Joachim Ollenburg, a down-on-his-luck lawyer with gambling debts, and his accomplice, a bumbling thief nicknamed “Diamond” Paul Kron. The kidnappers, too, were at first confused: They didn’t believe the man in their possession wearing an inexpensive suit was Albrecht and demanded some form of identification. Albrecht was held captive for 17 days, during which time he reportedly negotiated down his own ransom of 7 million deutsche marks. Later he wrote off the sum as a business expense on his taxes.

By the time of his death last year, Albrecht and his brother had built Aldi into an umbrella corporation that included more than 9,400 stores in 20 countries. Trader Joe’s was not the brothers’ only foray into the American marketplace—there are Aldis across the eastern half of the United States. To navigate German laws of corporate transparency aimed at large organizations, the Albrechts broke Aldi into 66 smaller units. Theo ran Aldi North, and Karl managed Aldi South. “The brothers lived under intense security,” says Coulombe. “They never drove in the same car.” In 1979, Coulombe finally agreed to sell Trader Joe’s to Albrecht for an undisclosed sum. He stayed on, running the company’s operations until 1989, when, he says, “Herr Albrecht and I got into an argument over hiring my successor, and that became the turning point.” Coulombe left his company for good, and his contribution was eventually erased from Trader Joe’s corporate history.

After he’d been released by his kidnappers, Albrecht spoke briefly with reporters. “I am, of course, very, very tired,” he said. “It was a very exhausting business.” That was the last public statement he ever made.


Only Walmart comes close to approaching Aldi in size if not global reach, and the efficiency, popularity, and profits of Trader Joe’s have not gone unnoticed by the Walton family. You can’t dash in for a good bottle of chardonnay and a package of fresh chicken enchiladas at Walmart. Aisles stretch the length of a football field, and on entering, one panics like a jungle primate discovering the Serengeti; a sharp longing for the crowded warrens and easy pickings of Trader Joe’s can seize the mind.

In 2009, Walmart tried to duplicate the Trader Joe’s experience. Its homespun prototype was named Marketside by Walmart. Four stores opened in the Phoenix area, each averaging 16,000 square feet—large for a Trader Joe’s but postage-stamp size for Walmart. Marketside turned out to be a failure. Stores reportedly took in less than $70,000 a week, a fraction of what a single Trader Joe’s can earn, and last year Walmart ended its small-scale experiment, shutting down the Arizona quartet.

Fresh & Easy has enjoyed better luck chasing Trader Joe’s. The British-owned company runs 168 stores (more are slated), but Fresh & Easy has encountered setbacks, too. In the past year 13 stores have been closed for underperforming and, making matters embarrassing, Human Rights Watch has issued a 104-page report detailing violations of workers’ rights at Fresh & Easy and at its parent company, Tesco. Aggressive campaigns to avoid complying with U.S. labor laws were cited.

As market wars have ensued across the last decade, Alice Walton, the 61-year-old daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars collecting pieces of American art for Crystal Bridges, a museum she’s building to house them outside Bentonville, Arkansas. What Walton is doing at Crystal Bridges is akin to what Coulombe pioneered at his company. When she decided she wanted a Norman Rockwell for her collection, she secured the artist’s paean to women workers, Rosie the Riveter. In a similar manner, when Trader Joe’s decided it wanted an asparagus and spinach tortellini to add to its inventory, the company’s buyers searched the world for the best representation, then added it to their collection.

Coulombe’s singular gift to consumers is to evaluate groceries as a museum director would art. More than anything else, this distinction sets Trader Joe’s apart. No, the beef, the fish, and even the vegetables are not the best. But the lamb vindaloo, the beef Stroganoff, the chicken taquitos? With each item Trader Joe’s has sought out the finest—just as Walton has done in stocking her Arkansas museum. There is only one Rosie the Riveter. There is only one Trader Joe’s Raviolone in Brodo. And that has made all the difference in the world. Ω

[Dave Gardetta is a writer-at-large for Los Angeles Magazine.]

Copyright © 2011 Emmis Publishing dba Los Angeles Magazine

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bend, Don't Break?

Well, boys and girls, we've seen a Paradigm shift in 2011. From al Qaeda to Occupy, we have seen the rise of social networks in this new century. We ignore this phenomenon at our peril. If this is a (fair & balanced) warning for the New Year, so be it.

[x FP]
The (B)end Of History
By John Arquilla

Tag Cloud of the following article

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Where have all the leaders gone? So much has happened in 2011, but there is precious little evidence of world events being guided by a few great men and women. From the social revolution in Egypt's Tahrir Square to the impact of the Tea Party on American politics, and on to the Occupy movement, loose-knit, largely leaderless networks are exercising great influence on social and political affairs.

Networks draw their strength in two ways: from the information technologies that connect everybody to everybody else, and from the power of the narratives that draw supporters in and keep them in, sometimes even in the face of brutal repression such as practiced by Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. Aside from civil society uprisings, this is true of terrorist networks as well. The very best example is al Qaeda, which has survived the death of Osama bin Laden and is right now surging fighters into Iraq — where they are already making mischief and will declare victory in the wake of the departure of U.S. forces.

The kind of "people power" now being exercised, which is the big story of the past year, is opening a whole new chapter in human history— an epic that was supposed to have reached its end with the ultimate triumph of democracy and free market capitalism, according to leading scholar and sometime policymaker Francis Fukuyama. When he first advanced his notion about the "end of history" in 1989, world events seemed to be confirming his insight. The Soviet Union was unraveling, soon to dissolve. Freedom was advancing nearly everywhere. Fukuyama knew there would still be occasional unrest but saw no competing ideas emerging. We would live in an age of mop-up operations, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq — for which he had initially plumped — and this year's war to overthrow Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi. As Fukuyama noted in his famous essay, "the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real or material world."

Fukuyama is only the latest in a long line of wise people who thought things were "over." From humankind's historical beginnings, a very lively interest in endings has always been apparent. The unknown author of the epic of Gilgamesh, a ruler of ancient Uruk (modern Iraq), was the first to focus on the mortality of the individual. He explored questions that were picked up on later by Aristotle, Lucretius, and Aurelius — about the meaning of existence and what happens after death — and that have continued to puzzle the thoughtful up into our time. Others have looked at "the end" from a wider, world-encompassing perspective — most dramatically depicted in the "revelations" envisioned by Christian Apocalyptic literature. The Mayans, too, thought very much about endings. Their "long-count" calendar is famously set to terminate on December 21, 2012.

The larger sweep of world events has often been incorporated into these "endist" views as well. Genghis Khan's Mongol hordes, the "Tatars," were so named by Christians who believed that these all-conquering riders had come from the nether world, Tartarus, to announce the looming end of times. Tolstoy's character from War and Peace, Pierre Bezukhov, spent a lot of time and effort attaching numerical values to Napoleon's name — to see whether the Corsican had the "number of the Beast" (666). Hitler also had his turn in the dock as a candidate anti-Christ. All of them proved false, however, and the end never quite came.

Many have expressed doubts about the latest "end of history" thesis, and even Fukuyama has mused that, even if some kind of inflection point has been reached, history could well continue on in some new vein. In this he might be right. For it is possible — indeed, more appropriate — to look at world events from a point of view that considers "endings" as not so final.

Instead there are historical turnings after which what was recedes and what is and will persist flourishes — a world less driven by the apocalyptic, one more attuned to the epochal. It could be argued that the Bible takes this view: The Flood in Genesis ushers in not the end but a new beginning; the Second Coming in Revelation features travail, but also a 1,000-year era of peace. Even J.R.R. Tolkien's saga of Middle-earth sees "the end" as a new beginning — as does the Mayan long-count calendar.

So it may be now. But just what is ending? And what is beginning? In terms of world affairs, I see that a great turning has occurred: A process that began in the 16th century reached its climax at the end of the millennium. There was a protracted struggle during this period between empires and the nation-states that rose up, fought against, and eventually defeated them.

Before the start of the long wars between empires and nations — i.e., for all of recorded history from Sargon of Akkad to Philip II of Spain — all great events were driven by empires that fed on the territory, resources, and labor of others. Persian, Greek, Roman, Moorish, Ottoman, Mongol, Mughal — with few exceptions, these and other empires were the arbiters of events. But in the 1500s, a sense of nationalism began to emerge in some places, most notably in Western Europe, where English and Dutch resistance to Spanish dominion was most pronounced. These struggles gave birth to some early nation-states that proved much stronger than the ancient and medieval city-states that were all eventually bowled over by empires.

From the outset, empire and nation fought each other unremittingly. As the great social scientist Charles Tilly observed in The Formation of National States in Western Europe, "War made the state, and the state made war." Even small states often sought to fill the void left by declining empires with imperial aggrandizement of their own. For example, the Portuguese and Dutch built seaborne empires in the 16th and 17th centuries, with holdings across the world's Southern Hemisphere hewn from the edges of indigenous imperia. For centuries this was the pattern, sometimes unfolding gradually —as in the case of Britain, whose gains were primarily in America in the 17th century, South Asia in the 18th, and Africa in the 19th — but occasionally playing out far more quickly, as with the rise of the Germans in the 1860s and their bloody fall in 1945.

By 1900 the outcome of the continuing conflict between empires and nations was still in doubt. V.I. Lenin, a true predecessor to Fukuyama in that he predicted the self-destructive end of empires, noted at the time that most of the world's land mass was still ruled by empires. He foresaw, however, that amid their struggles with nations, empires would eventually turn upon each other. And so they did. World War I consisted of a horrifying series of sledgehammer blows inflicted by empire against empire. What was left of world imperium went at it again a generation later, the survivors bankrupt and in ruins by the end of World War II. Even the grim Soviet successors to the czars could hold on for just another four decades. By 2000, recalculation of Lenin's "imperial control" figures would yield only a few rounding-error-sized holdings remaining.

So the end that Fukuyama perceived may have really been instead a great "bend of history," with the fighting between empires and nations finally, decisively resolved in the latter's favor. There are no more empires, lest one is willing to see the United States in this role — just a few Americans on the far left and right characterize the country as such, though some others around the world are more inclined to view America this way. In the place of fallen empires there are new nations everywhere, South Sudan being just the latest in a decades-long line. Perhaps the best measure of the triumph of the nation-state is the roster of the United Nations, which formed with just over 50 members at the end of World War II and has almost 200 today. And the idea of nationhood as a focus of loyalty and organizing principle remains attractive, including to those to whom this designation is being denied — Kurds, Palestinians, Pashtuns, and others.

Yet, if this notion of a "bend" rather than an end to history is right, something must fill the void created by the fallen empires. It seems to me that networks — the aforementioned loosely knit social aggregations of both civil and "uncivil" society actors — are striving to do just this. Over the past decade and more, networks have sprouted all over the world. In their finer moments they have achieved much good, helping to rein in the excesses of nations by, for example, encouraging the curtailment of nuclear weapons testing and fostering the spread of an international ban on anti-personnel land mines.

The noblest of these types of networks have most recently been on display from Tunisia to Syria, essentially leaderless social movements that have either toppled or imperiled tyrants even though the latter have had the big battalions on their side. The darker side of the network phenomenon is best exemplified by al Qaeda, which began a great war between nations and networks over a decade ago. Despite suffering a series of reverses, al Qaeda remains on its feet and fighting. Beyond the world of terrorism, criminal networks are growing in strength as well, often tearing at the fabric of nations, as they have done in Mexico in recent years — and have been doing in various parts of Africa for even longer.

How the new pattern will unfold is still unclear, but just as the first nation-states were often tempted to become empires, there may be a pattern in which nations and networks somehow seek to fuse rather than fight. Iran, in its relations with Hezbollah, provides perhaps the best example of a nation embracing and nurturing a network. So much so that, in parsing the 2006 Lebanon war between Israel and Hezbollah, most of the world — and most Israelis — counted it as a win for the network. China, too, has shown a skill and a proclivity for involving itself with networks, whether of hackers, high-sea pirates, or operatives who flow along the many tendrils of the Asian triads' criminal enterprises. The attraction may be mutual, as nations may feel more empowered with networks in their arsenals and networks may be far more vibrant and resilient when backed by a nation. All this sets the stage for a world that may have 10 al Qaedas operating 10 years from now — many of them in dark alliances with nations— a sure sign that the Cold War–era arms race has given way to a new "organizational race" to build or align with networks.

Clearly, a turning has occurred. With empires gone and the field seemingly left to nations, networks of all sorts have emerged to take up a new challenge, to usher in a new age. Virtually all networks have been "born fighting," like the first wave of modern nation-states some 500 years ago. If the last "bend of history" is any indicator, this latest turning speaks to a continued epoch of conflict.

This time, however, the way of war will be different. For centuries, nations competed effectively by imitating the great forces of empires on land and sea — and later in the air. Today, networks fight in fundamentally different ways, from waging "battles of the story" in places like Tahrir Square — whose echoes can be seen in "Occupy" events — to conducting terrorist and insurgent campaigns in dozens of places around the world. The challenge will be for nations to learn to emulate, where appropriate, the successful tactics of the networks — and to become adept at countering them as well.

Whenever U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about "bending the arc of history," it is with reference to the search for justice. But other story arcs are out there, and the biggest and most important of them has to do with the rise of networks and their looming impact on war, peace, and statecraft. If we fail to grasp this, we will find ourselves on the path of perpetual conflict, almost by default. Even if we do take the rise of networks seriously, there is likely to be quite a bit of conflict ahead. But there will be more hope for peace and progress as well. For where the world never really had sufficient room for both empires and nations to thrive, there is abundant space for nations and networks. Indeed, the great potential is that each can make the other better. Ω

[John Arquilla is professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and a contributor to Foreign Policy. His latest book is Insurgents, Raiders and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (2011). Arquilla received a BA from Rosary College and both an MA and a PhD from Stanford University.]

Copyright © 2011 Foreign Policy/Slate Group/Washington Post Company

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2011 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Beyond The Squeaky Voice

John Celmer's ordeal was hellish. If this is a (fair & balanced) case of melancholia, so be it.

[x Atlanta 'Zine]
Final Exit
By Charles Bethea

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God has the power over life and death. God gives life. We can’t create life from nothing and we do not have the power to take it. That’s not what we have. We were given the job to help. We weren’t given the power to decide who’s going to live and who’s going to die. —Sue Celmer

The last time Sue Celmer saw her husband alive, he was hungry. John was always hungry. It was June 18, 2008, and they’d just been to the drugstore to get more pain medicine. He was still recovering from a twelve-hour surgery a month before—the latest in a series of operations that had removed all of the cancer from his mouth but left a half-dollar-sized hole in his jaw. Although doctors had patched the hole with skin from his chest, his face was still severely swollen. On the way home from the drugstore, John asked Sue to stop by McDonald’s for a cheeseburger. Because of the swelling and the difficulty of chewing, all his food had to be blended like a milkshake. At home, she put the cheeseburgers in the blender, without the buns, and John drank the liquefied meat. A hungry man, she thought, is a man who wants to live.

The next day Sue called John. She was going out with friends from church that night and wanted to be sure he’d be okay alone. The couple had separate residences in the same Cumming townhome community, but they were still close. They shared a car, the affection of her three children and eight grandkids from a previous marriage, and twenty-four years—some more difficult than others—spent as husband and wife. It had been a long, hard road, but her husband had miraculously walked out of the hospital with his life. Things would soon get better. She was sure of it. The federal government had recently begun to process John’s request for disability money. Sue believes in signs; this was a good one.

During the phone call, John said he’d be fine. He always said he’d be fine, whether he was or not. Lately he’d been in a bad state of mind, staying at home alone. Sue called him again that evening, while she was out, to see if he wanted her to stop by. “Just go home,” he told her. A while later, he called to make sure she was there. Then he hung up the phone and turned to the two strangers who were sitting on his couch, across an Oriental rug, in his living room. Their names were Ted Goodwin and Claire Blehr and they were there, as they would later acknowledge, so fifty-eight-year-old John Celmer could kill himself.

Goodwin and Blehr are members of the Final Exit Network, a national group then based in Marietta that John had contacted in the final months of his life. FEN advises the terminally ill—as well as those who are not dying but who suffer unrelenting physical pain—on how to commit suicide. According to Goodwin, the group’s president at the time of John’s death, FEN members have attended the deaths of almost 200 people since its founding in 2004, instructing them in the mechanism of their demise and often witnessing their last moments on earth.

Not surprisingly, the group is a flash point for controversy. Its work exposes America’s own unresolved attitude toward suicide. In 2005, a Pew Research Center poll found that almost half of Americans approve of laws permitting doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives. But only three states make such allowances, and Georgia is not one of them. Indeed, in 1994 the state enacted a law forbidding the “direct and physical involvement, intervention, or participation” in a suicide. Celmer’s death, and the circumstances surrounding it, ultimately led to the arrests of Goodwin and Blehr for allegedly violating that law.

Almost a year after their arrests, Goodwin and Blehr still have not been indicted, although Forsyth County prosecutors say they expect to bring the case to a grand jury this month. Emboldened by the delay, Final Exit Network members, after temporarily suspending their operations following the arrests, have resumed advising the afflicted on how to kill themselves.

It is still unclear whether a Georgia court will determine if advising someone and perhaps even holding his hand as he intentionally inhales a lethal quantity of helium is a criminal act. No court in Georgia has ever addressed this specific question, or the more philosophical one: What, exactly, does it mean to help someone die? And what, for that matter, does it mean to help someone live, to give them everything you have, and fail?

Sue Celmer sees no ambiguity. “In God’s eyes,” she claims, “John was murdered.”

* * *

Sue was thirty-two and a shy, cautious mother of three when she met John at the Red Carpet Restaurant in Buffalo, New York, where she was a waitress in the spring of 1981. He was a hungry, outgoing loan officer with a broad chest and strong shoulders. He was also stubborn: about the quality of his stereo speakers, the crispiness of his oven-broiled pasta, and the soundness of his conservative politics. One of his favorite expressions was “Quitters never win and winners never quit.” John never quit pursuing Sue, and they married in August of 1984. Her children became his to help raise. The youngest, Tammy, understood him best. She called him a “chocolate volcano.” His outside was hard—his stubbornness could turn antagonistic—because the inside was so soft and sweet. It needed protection.

In July of 2004, John moved into a small, gray brick townhome in Wyngate, a new subdivision in Cumming. Business had brought him here from Buffalo, as it had Sue, a customer advocate for a medical software company. His place was a little dark and bare, but he had a good sound system. He also had 400 alphabetized CDs, six acoustic guitars, and a pewter hockey figurine commemorating his goalie days. Sue was around the corner, just a three-minute walk away. They didn’t live with each other anymore: John drank, Sue didn’t. But they talked almost every day—about the kids, the weather, God—and they attended a small Methodist church in Cumming together. By his mid-fifties, with Sue’s support, he’d become a believer.

John soon became friends with Wyngate’s president, Thomas Baumgartner, a sixty-six-year-old pest control specialist from Atlanta. Both men loved God and beer, which they drank on John’s stoop. When it was warm enough, they played guitar and sang together by the community pool—church songs when they were feeling holy, Buddy Holly and the Eagles when they just wanted to rock.

* * *

I was still legally his wife, and I stood by him. A lot of people who have problems in their marriages just give up, get divorced, don’t do anything for each other. But I lived around the corner from John. I brought him protein shakes every morning when he was sick. I took him to his doctor’s appointments when he couldn’t drive. There was nothing for me to gain—he left me with debt when he died. I paid for his medical insurance. I paid for almost everything that was in his house, too—not because I have anything, but because I was dedicated.

So what bearing does it have that we didn’t live together? That doesn’t speak to what our relationship was. There wasn’t a day that went by that if I was late coming home from work, he didn’t at least call to check: “Just wanted to make sure you got home okay.” When I went out of town, he drove me to the airport and picked me up. Once he moved down here, I really feel like things were changing and I think that more changes would have come. I think we would have been married forever.

* * *

John went through some hard times in his forties and fifties. He lost a high-end audio business, a setback that almost broke him. Then he bought a taxi franchise and sold that. And so it was that the man who’d been a loan officer when he first met Sue went into dry cleaning, delivering the clothes himself. People loved him, though. He always had Tootsie Rolls in his pockets. He’d give one to each customer or staple it to the tag. “Ten years ago,” he told his wife one day, “I would have been ashamed to tell anybody that I was in dry cleaning. But I don’t really care. It’s an honest living. I love being outside. I love being with people.” Then one August day in 2006, when the world had finally started feeling okay again, John opened his mouth and found something inside.

* * *

He was sitting on the porch, and he said, “I’ve got something to show you.” And he lifted up his tongue and showed me the spot underneath it. He said, “What does it look like to you?” I said, “It looks like you need to get to a doctor as fast as you can.”

It was a spot under the tongue, a growth with some gray areas. He’d already done all the investigation online, of course, and he handed me all the pictures—that’s how he was. He studied things.

It was devastating, but we moved forward. What else could we do?

* * *

It was oral cancer, on the floor of his mouth and under his tongue, likely caused by years of smoking. In September of 2006 John had his first surgery. They cut the skin along his throat from ear to ear and pulled his face up. They removed the spot from under his tongue and much of the floor of his mouth. Then he was released. For most of that fall, John underwent radiation treatment five days a week, which damaged his jawbone severely. By early 2007, a hole had appeared in his lower jaw, below his chin. He cut his mouth on exposed jawbone. He lost teeth. Traces of cancer remained.

He still had Sue and the kids, and for as long as he could work, he had his laundry job and the customers and neighbors he made smile. He had faith, too, which is no small thing. But he didn’t have the same body he had before he went into the operating room. Instead, he had a body he barely recognized, with a whole new set of seemingly intractable problems. He took the morphine and codeine he was prescribed. He self-medicated with nicotine and beer. In October of 2007, John found the website of the Final Exit Network, an end-of-life advocacy group that believes it is fighting the last great civil rights battle: the human right to a death with dignity. He clicked the site’s icon that read “Exit Guide Services” and, from that moment on, began actively pursuing his own death. This, FEN officials say, is what he wanted. He never mentioned it to his wife.

* * *

The surgery was his hope. And he thought, “I had the surgery, and now I have all these other problems.” He didn’t realize that when you wake up from surgery, you don’t feel better; you feel worse. Patients are discharged from hospitals with assumptions that they understand the expectation for recovery and how to take care of themselves. He was having trouble. He had a hole in his jaw, and a suction machine that was breaking down, and an arthritic hip. I was paying all the bills instead of staying with him. He wasn’t in a very good frame. He didn’t think it had turned out right. Maybe he was depressed. He couldn’t see the light of day, and it was right around the corner. So here’s a guy drowning, and they push his head underwater.

* * *

A former executive recruiter from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, Ted Goodwin sits in the office of his lawyer, Bruce Harvey, in downtown Atlanta. Goodwin, sixty-five, is talking about dying, as he does almost every day. He tells Harvey, a criminal defense attorney who parks his Harley at the foot of a spiral staircase and has a tattoo snaking out from his cuff, that, looking at him, he sees “only a man who will die.” This may or may not be a joke, as that may or may not be a smirk on Goodwin’s face. Harvey laughs uncomfortably.

Goodwin grew up in a middle-class home, son of the county’s director of child welfare. Both parents were civil rights advocates. He earned a scholarship to West Virginia University and became a public school teacher. He couldn’t support his family on a teacher’s $5,200 salary in 1967, though, and he landed in Atlanta, running an executive recruitment firm. Ten years later he invested in a company in the medical screening field and ran the company until 2008. His unpaid advocacy work, however, is what has consumed him.

In 2001, Goodwin moved in with his father, who was dying of emphysema. The disease takes you down in stages, as your lungs turn into something like cardboard. They can’t absorb oxygen, and you’re left gasping like a fish out of water. After one terrible episode, Goodwin called the doctor four times to get morphine for his father, but the doctor didn’t respond. Ten days later, his father was dead. At that moment, Goodwin—who hopes to die “with my shoes off, my family there beside me”—made a vow to himself that no one else would suffer so at the end, “if I could help it.”

The right-to-die community is the product of boldly negative thinkers who prepare, at all times, for the worst possible outcomes. In 2004, a few members of the now-defunct Hemlock Society—America’s first physician-assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia advocacy group—were frustrated by its legislative agenda that, they felt, left current sufferers helpless. Seeking a bolder, more immediate approach, the breakaway members created the Final Exit Network, which would actively counsel people with diseases such as Alzheimer’s and muscular dystrophy. Indeed, FEN is the only right-to-die organization in the U.S. that will advise people with intractable pain—but who aren’t necessarily dying—on precisely how to end their lives, while also being present at their deaths. The founding board wanted to avoid the way Jack Kevorkian had operated: as judge, jury, and, at least once, executioner. “We’re governed by a board of directors,” says Goodwin, one of the founders. “We have a medical review committee. We wanted many heads to make decisions.” The group now has 3,000 members, and in the spring of 2005, Goodwin became their national president.

Oregon, Washington, and Montana are the only states that currently allow assisted suicide, and then only by a physician. In Oregon, a lethal cocktail may be prescribed to mentally competent adults who are terminally ill. FEN supports this method, but until it’s available nationally, the group endorses what they call “self-deliverance.” Opponents call it assisted suicide.

* * *

If the right-to-die movement has a bible, it would be a 220-page book first published in 1991 and now in its third edition. Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying (1991, 1996, 2002) was written by Derek Humphry, a British-born journalist who founded the Hemlock Society in 1980. Humphry’s book contains twenty-seven chapters that are by turns funny (“How Do You Get the Magic Pills”), cryptic (“The Cyanide Enigma”), deadly serious (“Self-Starvation”), and unnervingly matter-of-fact (“Self-Deliverance Using a Plastic Bag”). Final Exit was the twenty-ninth-most-banned book of the 1990s in America.

Humphry, who now lives in Oregon, currently advises FEN, and his book is required reading for Final Exit Network members. In the twenty-third chapter, “A Speedier Way: Inert Gases,” Humphry explains that helium, argon, neon, and nitrogen can be used quickly and painlessly to cause one’s death. The balloon gas, he concludes, is best.

Inhaling helium expels oxygen from the body, which initiates brain death—without pain, it is said—in minutes. Bodily death occurs some ten minutes later. While it’s not the foolproof “magic death pill” wished for in the right-to-die community, helium is close to perfect. It isn’t explosive or flammable. It’s odorless, easy to breathe, and tough to trace. (In December of 2007, The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology quoted Humphry: “It leaves only seldom externally visible marks . . . on the body. If the . . . auxiliary means are removed by another person, the forensic death investigation of cause and manner of death may be very difficult.”) Best of all, it’s available in lightweight compressed-gas cylinders included in party balloon kits that go for about $25 at Party City. Buy two, one for backup, advises Humphry. Pay cash so you won’t leave a trail.

Then there’s the “exit bag.” It’s clear plastic, approximately twenty-two by thirty-six inches, with a four-foot piece of thin plastic tubing that connects to the helium tank. An elastic headband secures it. “Ugh! The plastic bag! Agreed. Not very aesthetic,” writes Humphry, “but not so bad with a little prior practice to become accustomed to it.” One size fits all, ordered by mail from a California company.

While Humphry’s tone is at times glib, the reader learns that the seventy-nine-year-old has helped three family members die: his wife, brother, and father-in-law, who suffered from cancer, brain damage, and heart failure, respectively. “The right to choose to die in a manner and at a time of one’s own choosing,” he says, “is the ultimate personal and civil liberty. In fifty years, assisted suicide will be a forgotten subject, confined to the books on social history.”

* * *

After joining FEN, John Celmer privately mulled his options, which were, simply, to live or die. In a typed letter dated May 1, 2008, addressed to his “case coordinator” at FEN, John revealed his conclusion. John wrote that he wished to use a “helium-induced methodology . . . for the purposes of coordinating my demise.” He continued, “If, however, for some imaginable reason(s), you do not feel comfortable in the continuance of your involvement . . . rest assured that I will have no other choice than to pursue any and all alternative sources of available means of helium inducement including pathetically taking measures into my own hands.”

He continued to walk around bandaged up, and everything he ate continued to fall through the hole in his jaw. He brushed his teeth and looked in the mirror and could see the sink through the hole. Working was too difficult, and embarrassing, to continue. He wouldn’t let it get any worse.

Because indictments against Goodwin and three other FEN members are still a possibility, they won’t talk specifically about much of what John Celmer told them. But if FEN followed its protocol with John, as in the other reported exits in which the group has been involved, the end of his life would have been set into motion this way: A case coordinator would have contacted him to discuss why he wanted to end his life. This is what Goodwin refers to as “the whiff test.” John then would have been handed off to the “first responder,” who gathers a detailed personal and medical history, including facts of diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment. This individual’s completed form is sent to the case coordinator.

Next, John’s medical records would have been reviewed to confirm what Goodwin calls “a real, physical medical condition.” These, along with the two sets of notes already taken, would have been sent to FEN’s medical director at the time, Dr. Lawrence Egbert, an eighty-two-year-old physician who teaches part time at the Johns Hopkins medical school in Baltimore and who says that he’s “never felt more like a doctor” than while advising FEN. By the time medical records of applicants arrive on his desk, around a quarter of cases are already screened out.

“Generally, Dr. Egbert didn’t talk to them unless he had a specific question that couldn’t be answered by the medical records,” says Goodwin. “But he would look at the medical records, the evidence, the opinions of two different people and make a determination as to whether or not they would be provisionally approved.” John would have then been assigned an “exit guide,” who would be in touch regularly by telephone and, at least once, in person. John’s guide was a woman named Claire Blehr, with whom he likely would have discussed, among other things, his family: whether they should be involved, how they might react. Family members are involved only if the exiting individual wishes them to be. They are not contacted otherwise. (Goodwin estimates that family members are present at the point of exit slightly more than half the time.)

Blehr, according to a police affidavit filed so investigators could search her house, judged that it was “a secure situation” where the possibility of arousing suspicion or outside interference was minimal, and that John wasn’t what Goodwin casually calls a “loony tune.” The case wasn’t declined for medical reasons, which happens perhaps one in fifty times—as when Egbert thinks an individual hasn’t exhausted his pain management options—and John was not referred to one of FEN’s three affiliated psychologists. John signed a sheet of paper more than once saying he’d exhausted his medical options, didn’t want further treatment, and was choosing this end himself.

If the guide agrees with the others, as Blehr allegedly did, the group offers provisional acceptance into the exit program. John would choose when to die, coordinating with his exit guide and a senior exit guide—in his case Ted Goodwin—who would also be present. He would buy the exit bag and helium tank, which he would activate himself as the guides watched and, if he desired, held his hands. They would throw the tanks and bag away after he was gone. They would leave, if possible, no trace of their presence. It would appear to be a natural death.

* * *

“I never did know quite what to call them,” says Blehr. “Clients? Patients? Friends?” Her lawyer, Robert Rubin, makes a joke: “Consumers.” She quietly admonishes him and continues, “Depending on how close I got to the person, after it was over there was a mingled sense of sadness and relief. In one case, I didn’t know her long, and I wished I had known her forever. I send blessings. I send prayers for them. I’m not religious, but I am a spiritual person.” After a pause: “We did what John wanted.”

Blehr, seventy-seven, is a former contractor for Georgia Quick Start, a state agency that provides free training to qualified businesses. She volunteers to teach the elderly how to navigate health benefits, disaster preparedness, and consumer fraud. She has a master’s degree in counseling psychology. Despite all this, she says she’s easily intimidated. When other FEN members learned that she attended the Unity Church of “practical Christianity”—she has also tried out the Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Jewish faiths—their skepticism was intimidating. So was being in the presence of her senior exit guide, Ted Goodwin, whose “bearing and experience” awed her. A trial, too, would be intimidating. Blehr never saw her arrest coming. On her computer she has a note that says, “Charges are dropped.” Her church, she says, teaches the importance of positive thinking. She is one of the dozens of foot soldiers who have done FEN’s work.

* * *

On May 6, 2008, according to the affidavit, John Celmer sent a letter and a $60 check to a company called the Gladd Group, which sells exit hoods. The following day, he purchased two helium tanks. During the previous six months, despite the pain, he’d been helping a man around the corner learn to read and had been fixing up a 1969 Honda Classic motorcycle. He was browsing the Internet one day and saw it: the same motorcycle he’d owned when he was young. He bought it, but it hurt too much to ride. Still, he cleaned it constantly, telling Sue that once he was better—this little word, once, giving her hope—he’d show her how to ride. They bought brand-new helmets.

He even consented to another surgery. Given John’s condition—he’d lost more than fifty pounds since the first operation—and the complexity of the procedure they had in mind, doctors said he had a roughly 30 percent chance of emerging cancer-free this time. Over the course of twelve hours on May 23, doctors removed his partly disintegrated jawbone and reconstructed it using bone and tissue from his leg and skin grafts from his thighs. In June he returned to have skin grafted from his chest over the hole in his jaw. The patches left by the harvested chest skin were, in turn, covered by thigh skin. A man only has so much skin, or patience, for cutting. But it was a success: John’s doctors declared him cancer-free.

Still, he walked with a crutch. He couldn’t eat or speak normally. The pain was unrelenting. In weak moments, Sue later thought, when you look into your circumstances and you take your eyes off the Lord, that’s when you become vulnerable. At times, John seemed to be losing hope.

* * *

On June 18, John smoked a few cigarettes and drank some beers, against his doctor’s orders, in the chair outside his door. Baumgartner drove by around 2 p.m. and said hello. “He seemed okay,” Baumgartner says. “Just sitting there, same as always.”

The next day, four days before he was scheduled to see a psychiatrist, John wrote an e-mail to Blehr saying that he was unhappy with his surgeries and was seriously considering “my plan (you know what I mean by that).” According to the affidavit, he thanked Blehr for “reinforcing that I can count on all of you to cooperate in assisting me with it should it come to fruition.” She was ready if he was.

According to Blehr, as outlined in the affidavit, John wanted to die at 11 p.m. that day. And he did not want Sue to know about his plan. “He didn’t use the term ‘meddlesome,’” says Goodwin, “but that was the gist of it. She was over there every day checking up on him. He didn’t want her involved because she did not agree with this. He said, ‘She’ll cause problems.’ Boy, was he right.”

It was a hot day, even for June in Georgia. Goodwin and Blehr arrived at John’s residence around 10 in the evening. The three talked for about an hour. John, who had trouble speaking—Dr. Egbert, who never met him, later described him around this time as “walking the streets with his head half gone”—told them about his love of the guitar and his belief in God. “If I’d have known then what I know now,” Goodwin recalls John saying, “I would never have let them operate on me. I would have gone into hospice and allowed nature to take its course.”

Much of the rest of their conversation, to Goodwin, is a blur. “It’s embarrassing, but if I were to store every nuance of all of this stuff in my head, it would make me crazy,” he says. “What still sticks in my mind was the fact that John—a very sweet man—looked at me and said, ‘Thank God you’re here. Without you, I would have to shoot myself.’”

According to Goodwin, shortly after 11 the three of them went upstairs to John’s bedroom, where he lay on his bed and put his head in a plastic bag filled with helium. Goodwin says he and Blehr held John’s hands until they went limp. As he asphyxiated, there was no involuntary reflex of the hands or body, a phenomenon that occurred with maybe half of those Goodwin has watched die by helium inhalation. In other words, he did not struggle. “He just lay there and very peacefully, you know . . . he knew that we were there for him and he was happy. I could see his face through the bag, and I know that he was very content.” Though he died thirty minutes before midnight, the official date of John’s death is June 20, 2008, when his wife found his body.

Goodwin, who’d not met John until that day, says the man was unconscious within twenty seconds and dead in twelve minutes, according to the affidavit. He and Blehr stayed with John for fifteen or twenty minutes afterward to make sure he didn’t wake up, as Goodwin says, “brain-dead like Terri Schiavo.” Then, following standard FEN protocol designed to protect the deceased and the guides, they removed all visible FEN paperwork—which, according to the affidavit, included a suicide note written by John. However, Goodwin and Blehr deny he left a note. Says Goodwin: “It was important to him to have his death look ‘natural,’ so as to not upset his family and friends.” According to the affidavit, Goodwin and Blehr collected the helium tanks and exit bag, turned off the lights, and closed the garage, where Goodwin’s car had been covertly parked. They threw the tanks and bag into a Dumpster in Acworth. This was the third exit Goodwin and Blehr had guided together, and they didn’t spend much time talking about how it felt, as they had after the first time in early 2007. “Afterward we just try to decompress,” Goodwin says. “There was this allegation that we go out and celebrate after the event. That’s just malarkey. There’s no high-fiving. It’s a traumatic thing for us, frankly.”

Sue lay awake down the street, not knowing. Nine days later, according to the affidavit, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation would know what she found in his townhome: the copies of Final Exit, the e-mails to members of FEN on his computer and notes about meeting them on his calendar. And a sample suicide letter, allegedly written by Blehr, dated almost five months earlier.

* * *

I don’t hate those people. They’re not responsible to me for what they did. But they are responsible to God. Life here is a blink. Eternity is a long time. He was on the road to recovery. He just couldn’t see it. He wasn’t a dark, depressed person. He was full of life, just momentarily not dealing. Given what he’d lived through the previous year and a half, that was understandable. What he needed was somebody to help him. Somebody other than just me. If you buy [FEN’s] premise, then why, as a culture, do we bother educating psychiatrists? Why don’t we just let all the depressed people in the world kill themselves? Why help them?

* * *

Three months after John’s death, a man named Richard Sartain joined the Final Exit Network. Blehr met him in his Dawson County home on January 8, 2009, to rehearse his planned exit. Blehr, the affidavit states, explained that once Sartain put the exit hood on his head, she and Goodwin would let the helium tanks run for twenty minutes after his pulse stopped. One of the guides would stand beside him and the other would be on the bed, holding his hands down to ensure that he didn’t pull the bag off, which could result in him being “in worse condition than he was before he started,” according to the affidavit. Sartain’s exit would have been Goodwin’s fortieth and Blehr’s fourth, had Sartain truly been terminally ill, or, for that matter, a man of that name. In fact, Sartain was the alias of an undercover agent working for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Goodwin and Blehr were arrested on February 25, 2009—Ash Wednesday, as Blehr recalls—for their alleged assistance in John’s suicide. Along with codefendants and fellow FEN members Nicholas Sheridan (allegedly Celmer’s “case coordinator”) and Dr. Lawrence Egbert, they are “The Georgia Four.” They contend—citing the First Amendment—that they merely passed along information to John, which he used to deliver himself as Goodwin and Blehr watched quietly and, as they acknowledge, held his hands. They are also charged with violating Georgia’s RICO Act and tampering with evidence, crimes that together could fetch up to twenty-eight years in prison.

Defense attorneys believe that prosecutors won’t be able to prove that Goodwin and Blehr did more than hold John’s hands as he died using a method that FEN recommended. Prosecutors, however, may argue that this was criminal assistance enough. Penny Penn, the Forsyth County district attorney, told Atlanta magazine she expects indictments this month.

Thomas Baumgartner, whose Wyngate community was the focus of headlines and police attention and gossip in the days and weeks after John’s death, is still in a state of disbelief. “We’ll never know what possessed him to do that,” he says. “What possesses anyone to do that?”

* * *

How do you think it felt to find him like that? Every day I went to work, came home, checked his mail, went through that dark house. I was the only one here to take care of it. They think they’ve got a case about compassion, but they weren’t harmed. John’s life was ended and mine was devastated.

I can tell you that he loved the Lord. That’s contrary to what occurred, but it doesn’t wipe the other out. John was more than the circumstances of his death. So I said, I’m not going out like a ragpicker. I’m putting on a dress and I’m going to bury him with honor because he is a child of God.

I will not dishonor him in his death. Ω

[Charles Bethea is a freelance writer as well as a contributing editor and columnist at Atlanta Magazine. Bethea received a BA from Brown University.]

Copyright © 2011 Emmis Publishing dba Atlanta Magazine

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2011 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves