January 2014
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

New Years'

I used to put a lot of thought into a New Years' message, back when I felt some optimism. Anyway, I wish you are who reading this a 2014 in which your compassion is rewarded and your best natured wishes come true.

Just realized, when I updated the top page, that this issue represents the twentieth anniversary of the Spectacle. More thoughts on that soon, can't assimilate it right now.

Game Spying

I had an epiphany one day in 1970 that the world is run by children when I noticed that a loutish and authoritarian teacher at my high school was wearing a Mickey Mouse watch. The recent revelation that U.S. intelligence has operatives playing massive online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft looking for terrorists is just the latest of a life-long series of confirmations of this thesis. I cannot imagine what other news revelation could so perfectly represent the poignant futility and cluelessness of power than a CIA agent representing an elf online while the world ends.

Gaza

Be careful what you wish for. When you have a state, it may also contain an enclave of enemies, like Gaza. The medieval solution was to kill them all (“Let God sort them out”) and let five hundred years elapse; if you attended carefully to your marketing, you might by then have a national narrative which completely omits any mention of mass murder. The Israelis are by contrast in the terrible position of managing Gaza, deciding how much gasoline or concrete to allow in, who can leave for medical treatment, when to send in commandos, and so forth. While the problem of an angry minority firing missiles at you from within your own territory is very real and frightening, it is impossible to manage such an enclave humanely; all of your own monstrosity will inevitably be revealed over time.

The vision of the current right wing Israeli government, of releasing murderers in lieu of freezing settlements, emerges from minds I can barely fathom, though I like to think “nothing human is alien to me”. Some agitation this week about Palestinian provocations involves an old and tired trope, and provides one more excuse for the Israeli failure in the last forty years to negotiate a settlement (a two state solution) in good faith.

Short term memory

I sent myself a text a few weeks ago with some topics for this column. I barely remember what I meant by “Kiev”, but “bridge closure”?

Bridge closure

Got it. I was thinking of the mean, political closure of the George Washington bridge to create terrible traffic and punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for failing to endorse Governor Christie.

Christie should not be allowed anywhere near the presidency. I am less worried about his substantive views, which can skew at least to the center, than his mean, corrupt, vindictive personality. He runs a Tammany-style New Jersey of influence and manipulation, and like Mayor Guiliani, will go to any length to punish people he does not like. He is therefore Nixonian in style and not to be trusted with the country.

Later-- This story has so many nuances its really worthy of a lead essay in the Spectacle. Two elements seem the most important. One, imagine the mindset, of a man, and of an administration, which thought it would be amusing and justified punitively to shut down traffic in Fort Lee--which failed to be concerned that people would die because ambulances or police could not get through. The text messages and emails which have been revealed so far reveal an astonishing sociopathy which should be chased right out of the public sphere whenever found. They also reveal a terrible lack of political perception and judgment, a kind of unwarranted self righteousness that prevented amoral politicians and appointees from perceiving that an action, regardless of being wrong, is inadvisable.

Secondly, imagine the mindset of a public--I mean both the pundits and their readers--who took far less seriously Christie's even more blatant action of firing prosecutors last year who wanted to ask one of his contributors some questions. That was highly corrupt and unconcealed, and somehow we assimilated that as politics as usual. Christie's career should have ended then, not with the bridge closure.

As I write, he has just spent two hours apologizing in a press conference, with characteristic grandiosity per the Times. He is still, in a time-dishonored historical modus operandi, disclaiming personal knowledge. My personal hope is that one of his scapegoated advisors will step up and admit to the world that the order came from Christie, or that he approved the action--something which is a given in his micro-managed administration.

Imagine also throwing away a "sure-thing" Presidential nomination by means of such an arrogant, silly, self-inflicted wound.

Two evidences of oligarchy

A fundamental problem of democracy is that “equality” of opportunity in a “free” market leads inevitably to political domination by billionaires, in every country which has tried the experiment. In the last few years, and especially since Citizens United, this development here seems particularly obvious, open, and careening out of control.

Two recent indications of the phenomenon. A federal judge wrote a remarkable essay asking why almost no-one at the top on Wall Street has been prosecuted for fraud or other misdeeds since the mortgage bubble collapsed in 2008. And a Times article revealed the existence of business school faculty who take money from Wall Street and write putatively objective studies which calling, unsurprisingly, for the derivatives industry to remain completely unregulated, despite the fire last time and the one which will burn us anew in another few years when the next derivatives-inflated bubble collapses.

Two NSA rulings

We now have two opposed District Court rulings on the constitutionality of NSA meta-data collection, which I hope the Supreme Court will take up on an accelerated basis. This is a crossroads moment, a determination of what kind of country we want to be, and if the choice is to continue living in a world of total surveillance, then its not any America I recognize.

Police and inequality

Although the NYPD is far more integrated than the Fire Department, the agency is running into a predictable snag: many minority applicants can’t pass the background check. This is not because minorities are more essentially criminal, but because the hugely racist stop and frisk policies of the last twenty years have assured that any young black or Latino guy carrying a nickel bag of pot is more likely to be arrested than any white guy. We have made sure that minority people who committed a youthful peccadillo are excluded from society, while simultaneously assuring that all white people are forgiven.

Stage hands

One of the few remaining lead essays I have in mind for the Spectacle but haven’t yet written is the one on unions: a great idea that, due to human nature, has a tendency to get way out of hand, like capitalism. I was stunned to read that union stagehands working for struggling nonprofits (like the City Opera which filed bankruptcy this year) make as much as a half million dollars, far more than most of the performers. As with capitalism, mass selfishness does not level out to become compassion, ever.

The long term unemployed

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in The Common Law that it is human nature to try to push another shipwreck survivor off a plank which can only float one. That statement probably should have forever disqualified him from the Supreme Court.

A threshold question about any society is whether it is formed on an inclusive set of values, or looks for additional people and classes to oppress and jettison, like the operators of a steamship breaking up the decks and railings to burn when there is no more coal. During the long era of the “American dream”, we were at least convinced we were inclusive. Today we too easily seem to be convinced by demagogues to turn on one another. Congress’ hesitation on long term employment benefits is just one symptom of that cruelty and self deception.