Friday, May 27, 2016

Guest Post by Chris Oakley - After Hours: The 1977 Los Angeles Blackout

(based on the “Electric Nightmares” series by the same author)

The 1965 West Coast blackout was one of the most alarming crises
in U.S. history. For several long hours many of the country’s largest
cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, were plunged into a
total or near-total darkness and public safety in those cities became
precarious at best; Los Angeles in particular teetered on the verge of
a full-scale riot that might have equaled, if not surpassed, the violence
of the Watts riots that raged just a few months before the blackout. It
was partly in hopes of averting such chaos that in early 1966 Congress
passed what was formally known as the American Electrical Transmission
Safety Act but would be better known by its nickname “the Blackout Act”;
among its other provisions the law gave the U.S. Justice Department the
power to investigate and try sabotage of electrical equipment as an act
of terrorism.

   But as the Watergate scandal mushroomed and a growing segment of the
American public became disenchanted with government in general and the
Blackout Act in particular, the act’s security provisions would steadily
come under heavier and heavier criticism. By the time Jimmy Carter threw
his hat into the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination race, there was
massive sentiment in favor of scaling back most if not all of the powers
granted to the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute Blackout
Act-related crimes; sure enough Carter said in his nomination acceptance
speech he would make it a high priority during his first 100 days in the
White House to overhaul the Blackout Act’s security clauses.

   At the time Carter’s pledge earned him a standing ovation from the
convention delegates. But just one year later, his words would come back
to haunt him as another major power outage struck Los Angeles and laid
bare his administration’s shortcomings. Some political historians have
suggested it was the Los Angeles blackout rather than the 1979 Iranian
hostage crisis that truly doomed Carter’s hopes for a second term in the
White House; his first response to the blackout certainly didn't do much
to help him in his efforts to woo undecided potential voters in the 1980
campaign. In fact Carter's handling(or mishandling) of the blackout gave
his 1980 Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, a perfect opening to take
Carter's domestic policies to task. Noticing that voters were alarmed by
the rising crime rate in America at that time, Reagan promised to (as he
put it) "take the cuffs off" the Justice Department in investigating and
prosecuting violators of the Blackout Act's security articles. Even now,
more than three and a half decades after it happened, the effects of the
blackout are still being felt well beyond southern California.


   July 13, 1977, had been a normal summer evening in Los Angeles right
up until the moment the blackout started. It had been searingly hot for
most of the day, and as night fell the temperature was still registering
in the mid-70s. The main topics of conversation among people walking the
city's streets were the fortunes of the Dodgers, the phenomenal success
of Star Wars at the box office, the not-so-phenomenal performance of the
Carter Administration after six months in the White House, and of course
the heat.

    All conversation screeched to a halt around 8:37 PM Pacific time; a
lightning strike at an electrical substation north of the city triggered
a cascade effect that within minutes had plunged all of Los Angeles into
darkness. In sharp contrast to the 1965 West Coast blackout, when power
outages were being reported as far south as San Diego, only metropolitan
L.A. experienced any electrical failures. But those failures made for a
situation every bit as tense as the conditions that had prevailed twelve
years earlier during the '65 outage. The social, economic, and cultural
tensions which had been simmering within the City of Angels all through
those twelve years hadn't diminished much by 1977; if anything, in some
quarters it had actually intensified...


    ...a development that in the long run would cost President Carter
dearly when it came time for him to confront the situation arising from
the blackout. It was just after 9:45 PM Pacific time (12:45 AM Eastern
time July 14th) when Carter was first notified of the power failure in
Los Angeles. Because of incomplete information regarding the nature of
the blackout and its origin, he misjudged the seriousness of the event,
which in turn delayed the release of federal resources that might have
otherwise enabled state and local authorities to get the situation under
control sooner.

    By the time Carter finally did get around to releasing federal funds
and resources to aid L.A. authorities in dealing with the blackout, more
than half the city was engulfed in chaos and the rest was bracing itself
for everything short of the Apocalypse. Even in the most upscale corners
of Los Angeles there were incidents of looting and violence; two Beverly
Hills jewelry stores were ransacked around 11:00 PM Pacific time while a
third was forty minutes later, while in Hollywood an LAPD riot squad had
to be called in to break up a melee near the Paramount backlot. The less
affluent sections of the city were in danger of becoming urban war zones
by that point. In the South Central district homeowners and businesses
were going so far as to set up improvised barricades against what seemed
like an inevitable assault by L.A.'s criminal elements. A local arsonist
who had been dodging the LAPD for weeks prior to the blackout took great
advantage of the chaos the blackout produced to set fires in a number of
abandoned buildings in the heart of Los Angeles, prompting a sportscaster
who was covering that evening's Dodgers game to comment despondently to
his viewers: "Ladies and gentlemen, the City of Angels is burning." Huge
black columns of smoke rose from the torched buildings, visible in every
direction for at least ten miles and bringing back what must have been a
Pandora's box of unpleasant memories for those who had lived through the
Watts riots a decade earlier.

    The California National Guard was activated just before midnight
on July 14th to restore order in metropolitan Los Angeles; to their
considerable credit, the Guardsmen acted quickly and effectively to
accomplish this mission. Their first move was to deploy fire control
teams to assist the beleaguered L.A. Fire Department in putting out the
multiple blazes raging in the heart of the city; simultaneously, squads
of MPs moved to back up the LAPD and CHP in arresting looters. Once the
fires were under control and the looting had been stopped, the National
Guardsmen's next task was to provide medical assistance for injured L.A.
residents who had been unable to get to a doctor or hospital. As a Times
editorial columnist said in the aftermath of the blackout, the Guardsmen
were "the glue that held Los Angeles together". Many of them would later
return to the city as extras when a movie based on the Times' reports of
the blackout was filmed in downtown L.A. in 1991.

     L.A. County sheriff's deputies also played a significant role in
restoring calm to the City of Angels. Many former deputies actually came
out of retirement to support their active-duty colleagues in keeping the
peace while utility crews worked to get the power back on. In some cases
they even had assistance from Hollywood studio security guards who’d been
released by their employers from their regular duties to give overtaxed
regular police personnel a hand with crowd control and guarding life and


     Electrical power was restored to most sections of L.A. by 5:30 AM
Pacific time(8:30 AM Eastern) on the morning of July 14. At that point,
much of the city looked like Genghis Khan had rampaged through it. Weeks
after the last light had been turned on in Los Angeles, the city’s public
works department was still picking up trash and debris left behind by the
orgy of crime and looting the blackout had generated; in terms of paying
overtime salary to LAPD personnel and L.A. County sheriff’s deputies, the
blackout was the most expensive civil emergency to hit the City of Angels
since the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. And still more financial headaches were
to come as the inevitable civil damage lawsuits from disgruntled business
owners and ordinary citizens began making their way through the state and
federal courts.

    But as bad as things had been and would get for the administration of
then-Mayor Tom Bradley, there were about to get exponentially worse for
the Carter Administration. At the time of the blackout, Jimmy Carter had
been president less than six months but was already starting to receive a
torrent of criticism from conservative opponents of his government; once
the extent of Carter’s mishandling of the blackout began to sink in those
critics went after him like hounds after the fox. On July 18th, just four
days after the lights came back on in Los Angeles, two GOP senators went
before Congress to introduce a resolution calling for the appointment of
an independent counsel to look into the Carter administration's response
to the blackout. That same day the Manchester Union-Leader printed one of
the most blistering editorials in its history, a vitriolic anti-Carter
rant essentially accusing the incumbent president of abandoning L.A. in
its hour of need. Even by the Union-Leader's own notoriously belligerent
standards the editorial was a shot across the president's bow; no sooner
had the paper hit newsstands than multitudes of angry Carter supporters
throughout New England starting bombarding the Union-Leader offices with
a barrage of letters, telegrams, and phone calls coming to his defense.

     Some of those defenders would later reverse their stances as the
investigation into the Carter Administration's handling of the blackout
exposed Carter's errors in judgement as well as those of his advisors.
But at the time the Union-Leader editorial was published, Democrats all
throughout New England were unanimous in blasting the paper for what in
their eyes constituted an intolerable and deliberate slight of the chief
executive. A few of the more vocal critics of the Union-Leader editorial
even went so far as to picket the newspaper's printing plant or threaten
lawsuits against the publishers for allegedly slandering the President.
The suits never went forward, but just the same they reflect the outrage
the editorial had stirred among Carter's supporters.

     The resolution to appoint an independent counsel to probe the White
House's handling of the Los Angeles blackout was debated in Congress for
weeks before finally being approved on August 2, almost one month after
the blackout. And even after its approval many of Carter's allies in the
House and Senate continued to bitterly criticize the decision; one junior
Vermont representative labeled the inquiry “a politically motivated smear
job.” Nor for that matter was the GOP unanimous in agreement on the need
for a Congressional probe into Carter's response to the blackout--one of
the members of Montana's GOP Congressional contingent labeled it “a waste
of good money” and questioned the timing of the inquiry at a moment when
there was an economy to be revived and Soviet expansionism to be opposed.


     The Congressional inquiry into President Carter's handling of the
Los Angeles blackout didn't officially convene until October 10, 1978,
slightly over two months after the resolution appointing the independent
counsel who would lead the inquiry had been passed. Right from the start
the independent counsel's office was dogged by allegations that they were
engaged in a political witch-hunt; it didn't help matters any when one of
the law clerks assigned to the office was photographed sporting a 'Reagan
For President 1980' button on his lapel. Many Carter White House staffers
viewed the inquiry as at best an intentional slight of the commander-in-
chief and at worst the beginning of a right-wing attempt to overthrow the
Carter Administration via a questionable impeachment proceeding.

     But in January of 1979, just as the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran was on
its last legs, a former White House staffer gave devastating testimony to
the inquiry that would make many of Carter's defenders start to question
whether he was worthy of defense. In a two-hour hearing that was the talk
of the Beltway for days after it ended, the witness painted a devastating
portrait of an Oval Office whose right hand didn't know what its left one
was doing. He described people giving President Carter getting a hundred
different reports from a hundred different sources about what was taking
place in Los Angeles-- reports often blatantly contradicting each other.
He portrayed a cabinet that was seriously if not totally flustered in the
face of a major urban crisis. He spoke of a president who had been asleep
at the switch at a time when alertness was critical. He pointed to scores
of misjudgments by Carter's senior disaster preparedness officials which
served to make an already grave situation that much worse. By the time he
finally left the stand, some members of the inquiry panel members who had
been listening to the staffer's testimony were ready to at the very least
censure Carter if not impeach him outright.

    And it wasn't just the Republicans who were incensed about Carter's
mismanagement of the Los Angeles blackout; many of the President's fellow
Democrats were equally fed up if not more so. The chairman of California's
state Democratic committee published a blistering op-ed in the Los Angeles
Times essentially accusing President Carter of abandoning Los Angelenos to
the whims of fate. A leading Democratic member of Alabama's Congressional
delegation painted a grim picture of what would happen to the United States
if terrorists attacked during an L.A. blackout-type crisis, suggesting such
an event could sow the seeds of nationwide anarchy. Even in constituencies
where Carter usually enjoyed heavy support, critics of the incumbent chief
executive were preparing attack ads on behalf of those who would challenge
him for the Oval Office. In many southern states a certain conservative PAC
started running a notorious commercial now known simply as “the 3:00 AM ad”
that implied Carter's mismanagement of the L.A. blackout had left the door
open for enemies of the United States to wreak havoc on its citizens while
they were at their most vulnerable.

    The controversy over Carter's handling of the Los Angeles blackout had
serious consequences for his 1980 re-election bid. Carter's main rival for
the Democratic nomination, Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, relentlessly
exploited the incumbent's vulnerability on this matter; had it not been for
Kennedy's own perceived transgressions, he might easily have supplanted the
President as his party's nominee. As it was, Carter just barely managed to
squeak past Kennedy for the nomination and would find himself operating at
a serious disadvantage when he faced Republican candidate Ronald Reagan in
the general election.

Monday, May 23, 2016

May 23, 399 BC – Socrates Revived

After a clamorous trial in which the philosopher Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth and believing in novel gods, the Athenian jury of Five Hundred declared him guilty by a narrow margin (56% in modern estimates). Following the conviction, both sides proposed punishments. Socrates suggested that he be forced to dine in the Prytaneum and hold a position in high society, which would be the opposite of his philosophy of calling all norms into question. His accusers, representing business concerns, religious laymen, and other philosophers, argued that Socrates should be compelled to suicide by drinking hemlock.

This form of execution was traditional in ancient culture, where there was worry about reprisals from the gods if an innocent person was accidentally executed. Instead, the legally guilty would kill himself and then receive a more noble place in the afterlife for taking personal responsibility. On a practical level, however, it was customary for the guilty party to flee town before nightfall and go into exile, thus freeing the city of nonviolent social misfits. Following this understanding, the jury sentenced Socrates to death on a wide margin of 72%.

Socrates’s longtime friend Crito begged Socrates to make an escape. Socrates, however, was determined to follow the letter of the law, even if it was against the unspoken spirit, as was outlined in a dialogue between them written by Socrates’s student Plato. Surrounded by many of his friends and favorite students, Socrates drank the hemlock made from leaves of the Conium plant by a city official. While the philosophers debated and his friends began mourning, Socrates described to them how his feet had gone numb, not even feeling a pinch. The cold feeling crept up his legs toward his heart, where it was expected to kill him.

As he struggled to take his final breaths, he called out, “Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.” There is much debate about whether Socrates’s last words were a reminder to settle his books so that there could be not even an unpaid medical bill against him, or perhaps a reference to the healer demi-god granting immortality to his words, or if it was a suggestion to attempt a resurrection as the mythological Asclepius himself had done. Said to be the son of Apollo, Asclepius was the first physician and founded medicine, but when he cured death itself by resurrecting Hippolytus after his horses threw him, the gods struck Asclepius down for impudence.

Whatever the meaning, Crito was not satisfied and asked for Socrates to say something more, anything at all. Socrates then stopped breathing.

Crito threw himself into an embrace of Socrates’s chest, where he noticed that the old philosopher’s heart was still slowly beating. He cried out that if Socrates would not take in breath, he would give it to him, and blew into his mouth. The body did not reflexively deflate, so Crito pushed the air out from the torso and breathed again.

The young philosophers were divided, some believing Crito to have gone mad, while others were fascinated. While Crito worked, they examined the body and found that Socrates’s heart continued to beat and, in fact, grew stronger rather than stopping. Crito became exhausted, and soldier-scholar Xenophon, who had just returned from a disastrous campaign in Persia, stepped up to continue the artificial breathing. Over the course of the next two days, the students took turns breathing for Socrates, although he largely breathed for himself through the last night. After sleeping several hours more, Socrates awoke.

Athens was shocked. The official who had given the poison was put on trial and proved with witnesses that he had given the appropriate dose. Socrates had fulfilled his execution and yet lived. A cult swiftly broke out around him as a miraculous return to life, and his philosophy students found themselves as priests to a swarming congregation.

There are few recorded words from Socrates after his near-death. Descriptions from Plato paint him as sickly and slow to respond, likely due to at least some brain-damage during his low-oxygen state. He survived for at least a year more before passing away more conventionally.

Yet Socrates lived on through his apparent apotheosis. Those who had accused him either quickly converted or were hounded out of Athens, prompting many of the “new gods” or “daimons” Socrates was convicted of worshiping to become accepted. These were explained by Plato and others as forces of nature and spirit. Study of natural philosophy flourished, incorporating a great deal of numerology from previous thinkers such as Pythagoras. Soon Socratics developed statistics, economics, and biology, with a special emphasis in medicine.

Many students under Antisthenes broke away to create their own Cynic cult, rejecting many of Plato’s diamons that directed human activity. The more material-directed thought spread to the fledgling Roman Republic through the Greek colony at Syracuse, where the philosopher Archimedes had applied many principles into engineering. Using enormous war engines and efficient logistics, the Romans conquered Greece despite its vast wealth in a social system that knew almost no poverty.


In reality, Socrates died in self-execution and swiftly became a martyr. His “Socratic method” of admitting ignorance, asking questions to reveal foundational truth, and then building logically from there became the groundwork for the Western style of philosophy, which would be expanded through his students, especially Plato for the generations to today.

Hemlock is wildly poisonous to animals, its alkaline structure blocking the neuromuscular activity of the respiratory system. Although the victim would die after ingesting seven or eight leaves or even fewer seeds, it has been shown that an artificial respirator can provide a cure by breathing until the poison is worked out of the patient’s system.

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