January 2016
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Paul Kantner

Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane just died of a heart attack at age 74. I want to say that’s impossible, because somewhere inside I am still 16, not 61, gyrating in my seat at the Fillmore East in 1970, tripping on some really smooth blue acid, while the Airplane performs onstage, backed by the pulsing analog graphics (food coloring in bowls on an overhead projector) of Joshua Light Show. The lead in to the first song that night was a film clip of the last moment of King Kong: “It wasn’t the airplanes...It was beauty killed the beast!” The band certainly performed We Can Be Together, with a line that pops unbidden into my mind whenever I think about protest, strength, self confidence, the knowledge one is right about something and the tired old powerful are wrong: “We are obscene lawless hideous dangerous dirty violent and young”.

Capitalism and Socialism

The fraudulent, controlled Chinese stock market plunges, and so does ours in sympathy. Why? Because our own billionaires have invested their money (and yours) across ideological lines; because in fact there are no ideological lines, since Chinese government officials who call themselves Socialists are mainly aspirational billionaires; because Orwell was right, and the pigs and bankers are indistinguishable; because, although there can be catastrophic unexpected movements in both, our own stock markets are just as fraudulent as the Chinese.

Education

After World War II, when the GI bill financed a college education for millions of soldiers, we saw the simplest, clearest expression of the American Dream triumphant: college degree, good job, first home, marry, raise children who will also get an education and do even better than you. Today, we have the remarkable spectacle of Marco Rubio, and others, talking down the useless college education, promoted by Democrats because all their friends are professors, and advocating instead the creation of more and better high school programs in industrial skills (to make young people ready for jobs in a manufacturing economy which no longer exists). There can be no more stunning repudiation of the Dream, or acknowledgement it has died, than Rubio’s words about education.

Native Born

All that birther bullshit and now the big reveal: John McCain was born in Panama, Ted Cruz in Canada, and nobody cares. You can be born anywhere in the world and be a mainstream white Republican conservative; just don’t be born anywhere Democrat or liberal to a foreign parent, especially with dark skin. As I say in the main essay, Republicans willing to detach and hurl every possible brick shouldn’t expect to have any kind of democratic structure left when they are done.

Wilson School

Names are powerful symbolic currency and we don’t use ones associated with people who lose the battle of the Narrative. Nobody is naming a child “Adolph” any more and there is no “Custer” military school. The debate over whether the Princeton school of diplomacy and politics should continue to be named “Wilson” needs to be seen in this context. You learn in a public school education and via light reading that Woodrow Wilson was an intellectual progressive Democrat, but if you read a little more carefully, he was as terrible a destructive influence on this country as Richard Nixon, and arguably even more so, because he stayed in power longer and was never repudiated. Wilson promoted and tolerated the re-segregation of the federal bureaucracy, the beating of Suffragettes right in view of his White House, the lynching of Wobblies, flag-kissing mobs, the Palmer Raids, the prosecution of quite mainstream and gentle anti-war voices such as Eugene Debs--and the initial but effective suppression of any hope that there could ever be a leftwing third party participating loyally in American elections. There is actually no moral distinction between naming anything the “Wilson” school and calling it the George Wallace or Bull Connor or Parnell Thomas school.

Flint and the social fabric

The unraveling of not just the American Dream but of the national fabric, the very assumptions on which the whole polity was based, is exemplified by the lead-poisoned water in Flint, Michigan. Government is retrenching and abandoning the least privileged; we had our first horrible vision of this after Hurricane Katrina, complete violence and anarchy, including police murders, on the ground while the President chirped, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!” It is hard to say exactly what government is for if not to build roads and bridges, provide clean water, and rescue citizens and give them refuge during disasters. If we no longer have minimal competence to do those things, the mere military creation of “order” is not likely to do be done with more ability, and is both illusory and inadequate to perpetuate a failing polity anyway. Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies proposed a theory that phenomena which look from the outside like a catastrophic collapse can actually be an internal simplification, a reconfiguration of power lines to be less costly and more effective. Throughout the Roman empire, stable middle class people transitioned from being Roman citizens to being subjects of barbarian kings without any loss of security and in most cases, with a substantial decrease in taxation. America seems to be within a hundred years or so of a similar simplification. I would vote in a heartbeat for a constitutional amendment which would simply let the red states go, and I would probably make out even better in a republic which consisted only of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.

Electricity

I have electric heat, and my bills in the winter in Amagansett can hit $1000 a month for my modestly sized house. In my mind, electricity should cost no more than $150 a month or so (and a slice of pizza $1.00, and a ride on the subway as well, and the charge at an ATM for taking out money not more than a quarter). My income is not eight times greater to accommodate a $1000 electric bill. The Long Island Power Authority, of hack political appointees who notoriously spent only 20 minutes getting ready for Hurricane Sandy, has been moved away from the actual day to day business, while the professionals at PSEG run the system, but the prices aren’t going down noticeably even as oil prices slide. This is also an example of the “tax” for living iin a failed polity, similar to those levied at the end by a corrupt and failing Roman empire which could not even send a legion to your defense when needed.

The EU

More integration (coupled with competence) is needed to save our world, but instead we have the spectacle of the European Union beginning to disintegrate under the influx of illegal immigrants and terrorist strikes like the one on the Bataclan hall in Paris. Tainter would probably also see this as an onset of simplification. I will not be around to see the outcome. I could happily live in a world of small agrarian villages and low technology, but will be happy to die before the onset of a “Beyond Thunderdome” world of insensate cruelty and violence.