February 2011

Top of This issue Current Issue

Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

My essay on lying from 2000 was mentioned in Salon this month. I can never predict when I'm writing which piece will have legs, but this one, ten years later, earns me more mail than anything else. As I tell people who write to me, their email is the only pay I get for writing the Spectacle, and keeps me going year after year.

Birth and citizenship

The dispute over working class foreign women, mainly Mexicans, coming here to have so-called "anchor babies" is thinly veiled bigotry and political theatre over an issue which (like most) must be resolved as far upstream as possible. Americans, with a relatively low fertility rate and a disdain for minimum wage work, need immigrants to work in restaurant kitchens, pick fruit and (here in the Hamptons) keep their grounds, prune their trees, and clean hotel rooms. The problem is that we have never adjusted immigration policy to allow sufficient numbers of people to enter to do the jobs we desperately need them to do. Instead, we have a unspoken, and unspeakable compromise which is both dishonest and destructive of human lives: we will alternate turning a blind eye, because illegal immigrants fill significant needs of wealthy businessfolk who contribute to political parties, and savaging the immigrants themselves when it serves a transient political purpose. In other words, we are deliberately creating an underclass we can exploit and torment when it serves our purposes.

The only ethical solution would be to readjust immigration policy to permit entry of low wage workers as they are really needed. I personally believe that there are jobs Americans won't do, as this is evident every day in the Hamptons. Caucasians who can't afford to live here will not commute sixty or seventy miles to do entry level jobs, but you see Hispanic people every day who manage to get to those jobs, even if they have to do so by bicycling on the highway.

The illusory nature of the anchor baby dispute is best illustrated by the fact that any illegal mother who comes here to have her baby must then wait a minimum of twenty-two years for the child to confer legal status upon her: an American citizen child must reach 21 years of age to file the petition, which then takes at least a year to process. An article in the Times for January 5 suggests that women in the eighth month of pregnancy staggering across the desert are incredibly rare, while middle class and wealthy Mexicans who can afford to pay for health care more frequently cross the border legally to have children here.

The Sudan

One of the goals I set in the Ethical Spectacle mission statement back in 1995 was: "Stating the obvious if no-one else has, or if the obvious is not getting enough attention."

One of the most obvious and most unknown points I have stumbled over is this: People who don't want to belong to a nation should not have to. Scattered individuals may emigrate, but cohesive geographical regions of people who feel that way, should be permitted to secede. Forcing people to remain a part of your nation is inconsistent with democracy and self-determination.

Since the Civil War is considered a fundamental event in the formation and continuation of American democracy, at least in Northern schools, we turn a wilful blind eye to the fact that we forced half the country to remain members of a republic they urgently desired to leave.

The upcoming referendum in the Sudan may, if it happens peacefully, represent a better solution: the separation of the animist and Christian south from the Islamist north so they can each pursue their own destinies.

Reprinted without comment

From the January 5 Times:

Many people knowledgeable about the federal budget said House Republicans could not keep their campaign promise to cut $100 billion from domestic spending in a single year. Now it appears that Republicans agree.


The Times for January 5 also reports that miniature defibrillators are being implanted in thousands of people, many of them black and Hispanic, who don't need them (don't meet the criteria resulting from appropriately-performed medical studies). The article wouldn't draw the conclusion that its being done for money-- but I do. Last month, I wrote about a doctor who performed unnecessary stent procedures for that reason. The racial bias in unnecessary procedures probably has to do with economic class--the procedure is being done on patients who have less education and are less able to question it.

Unnecessary procedures are a major contributing factor to health care costs and insurance premiums going through the roof.

The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords

My first reaction, like a lot of commentators, was that this was the example I predicted of a dittohead inspired by right wing violent rhetoric, taking action. It isn't that clear. The writings and rantings of the shooter, Jared Loughner, strongly suggest he is schizophrenic, and hard to pin down politically. Though some of his incoherent ramblings suggest a right wing perspective (talk about the gold standard and government mind control), much of his stuff is a rorschach blot in which you can find anything ("Mein Kampf" and "The Communist Manifesto" were two of his favorite books). This is not the case of "Rush told me to" everyone was looking for. At most, you can say (as the sherriff of Pima county did, and many others) that anything can happen in an environment where irresponsible and violent rhetoric is the norm. By the way, per a search on his website, Rush Limbaugh mentioned Congresswoman Giffords only a few times, mostly favorably as a breakaway anti-Obama Democrat, and (even in one unfavorable mention) never with the lurid rhetoric he tends to use when attacking other more visible Democrats like Obama or Pelosi.

Limbaugh has already predictably tried to turn this back on the Democrats, analyzing their eagerness to blame acts of violence on the right as being a manipulative and virtually demonic tactic:

And the first thought, the desperate hope that the losers in November of 2010 had, was that they could revitalize their political fortunes because of this unfortunate shooting of a congresswoman in Arizona. That was the most important thing to them -- and that, to me, is sick. You know that they were rubbing hands together. You know that they were e-mailing and calling each other on the phones saying, "A-ha, this might be the one! This might be the one where we can officially tie it to these guys and shut 'em up and shut 'em down." They want you to believe that sadness was on the order of the day, and I'm sure it was, but the opportunity! They couldn't help themselves. They just couldn't help themselves.

By contrast, Sarah Palin's election map of Congressional districts targeting Congressfolk, including Giffords, with crosshairs for defeat has been getting a lot of media play. I think Palin (whom I detest) is way out of her league. I don't suspect her (as I do Rush, and maybe this double standard is gender-based) of being capable of a secret thrill if someone did get shot as a result of her words; I think, rather, like most Republicans, she simply has been carried away by rhetoric, and forgotten that any form of words may have real world consequences. Still, it was shameful to put crosshairs over Giffords' district (regardless of whether Loughner ever saw it), and doubly disgraceful for her spokescritter to say now that it was intended to be merely a "surveyors' mark" and not gun-related.

On the other hand, there is a definite sad irony in the fatal shooting of federal judge John Roll, a Bush Sr. appointee who in 1994 threw out a federal requirement for mandatory background checks for handgun purchases. In November, Loughner legally purchased the Glock he used for the killings, despite having had a very public psychotic meltdown for the last couple years, including Youtube and Myspace rantings, expulsion from community college, rejection by military recruitment, and (per some vague sources, but not much information yet available) an arrest record. I wonder if any sense of the irony occurred to the judge as shots were fired (or to Ms. Giffords, who has also been a gun rights supporter).

There is some issue as to whether sale of the Glock itself would have been illegal under the Brady law allowed to expire in 2004, or just the extended magazine. In either event, Loughner would have been able to shoot a lot fewer people.

When an NRA spokesperson was asked this question, he answered (per Politico): "Anything other than prayers for the victims and their families at this time would be inappropriate."

An interesting sidelight: the NRA always argues that when there are more weapons on the street, we are all safer. A woman who was in the Luby's cafeteria in Killeen where a gunman shot more than 20 people in the early '90's became an NRA poster child when she complained that she instinctively reached into her purse for her gun, only to remember she wasn't allowed to carry it.

Arizona is the test lab for this theory of increased safety, because concealed carry is allowed without a permit. But no-one in this crowd of dozens of people drew a weapon to defend themselves against Jared Loughner. It seems that he was the only one taking advantage of the right to carry.

However, in a shooting incident in a densely crowded urban area with confusing stimuli, I also believe that something like the following scenario would arise from attempts at self defense: First, people shooting back will kill as many innocents as the gunman did, possibly missing the gunman in the effort; secondly, responding police will be unable to distinguish between the original shooter and those shooting back, and will kill them all.

But of course, as the NRA will tell us later, its just the price we pay for liberty.

Later--One of the people who subdued Jared Loughner was indeed carrying his own concealed weapon.

Joseph Zamudio said he was emboldened to respond by the fact that he had his own weapon. He shoved another rescuer into a wall before realizing that the other was the man who had taken Loughner's gun, and not the shooter. Here is a Slate article with more details. Zamudio agreed with an interviewer that he might easily have shot the man holding Loughner's gun, by mistake. Zamudio also says he never actually drew his own weapon for fear of being shot mistakenly by the cops.

I was incorrect in stating that nobody else had a gun. I stand by my statements about the danger of untrained responders shooting each other and other innocent people, or being shot by the police.

The New York blizzard

We have a billionaire in his third term as mayor of New York, who blew in on a platform of bringing business acumen to a corrupt, disorganized, bureaucratic political environment. Now, he seems to have no remaining conception of how to manage the city to make sure we can respond to blizzards, develop software econmically or do anything else.

Bloomberg has been mayor too long, and he has fallen prey to the virus of self confidence, of personal exceptionalism, where the link breaks between how smart you are and the necessity of results. He is like defense secretary Rumsfeld, whose idea of a smaller army, with more technology, was perfect from every business and ideological perspective except that of real experience.

Salman Taseer

What a sad story. A secular Pakistani who campaigned against blasphemy laws that could be used to sentence Christians or secular types to death, is shot in the back by his own bodyguard--and now the same lawyers who fought Musharraf's dismissal of the chief justice are showering the murderer with rose petals. Pakistan is in an intolerable situation: its a nuclear power with a thin veneer of democracy, ready to tip to the fundamentalists at any moment, and with an intelligence service which actively supports those who are killing our troops and attacking Indian cities. We are forced to officially pretend Pakistan is an ally, solely as realpolitik, because the alternative is worse.

A thought

In a democracy, leaders need to be able to deal with the press. In an autocracy, there is no need. Politicians like Sarah Palin who insulate themselves from the press are better suited for autocratic rule.

Violent rhetoric

In the New York Times for January 15, conservative columnist Charles Blow runs interference for Palin et al, chastising the left for suggesting they encouraged the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. In fairness to Blow, he also says he's opposed to the right's violent rhetoric. However, I still disagree. I would join him in criticizing anyone who claimed Palin had a direct influence over shooter Jared Loughner, as there is no evidence. But the commentators Blow criticizes are mainly saying, "The right has created an irresponsible atmosphere of violence, in which this shooting occurred." In a moral discussion, we are not held to criminal court-style standards of proof, which the right has never hewn to anyway while bandying about accusations of socialism and the like.


I usually feel encouraged when an autocratic leader yields power in the face of a popular demonstration--but I wonder if this won't lead to Islamic fundamentalism, as democratic elections did in Algeria some years back. The military annulled the election then to keep the populace from having their democratic way, as they had just voted to end democracy. Its a complicated world, and I sometimes wish I could watch it from a space station, or, even better, a distant and safe planet.


President Obama has now definitively broken the promise to close Guantanamo and to transfer all the detainees either to other countries or to the American civil law system. He backed down when Congress set limits, and basically cut off financing, for the transfer of detainees. It is highly disturbing that Congress intervened at all in something so clearly an executive function, especially a legal one; it would be like Congress fostering the death penalty by cutting off funding for the feeding of prisoners.

The problem I have with Guantanamo is that, if the concept were managed exactly the way it was created and planned by George W. Bush, there would be nothing to prevent you or me from mistakenly being taken there--no right of habeas, no appeal, no ability to confront witnesses or even to see the information supporting our arrest. That's not my America.

Extended magazines

Loughner had an extended magazine which allowed him to fire thirty-three bullets before reloading. It was illegal until 2004 under the assault weapons ban the Republican Congress permitted to expire. Extended magazines were also used by the killers in the Virginia Tech and Fort Hood shootings.

The NRA will fight like a motherfucker to make sure that people like Loughner can walk into any gun shop and buy such magazines in the future. In NRA-world, Jared Loughner's right to be able to fire 33 rounds without stopping, trumps any rights whatever of Gabielle Giffords, John Roll, their loved ones, and the people they served in their public jobs.

Even under the Supreme Court's very expanded current view of the Second Amendment, it is clear that some weapons and accessories may still be regulated. But who will have the courage?

I don't know whether federal judge John Roll was shot with the second bullet or with the 33rd, but--having thrown out part of the Brady bill when it was before him in 1994--I wonder:

*Did he have a rosy, very human, very false feeling that he was immunized from gun violence by having taken a pro-Second Amendment position? Loughner didn't know and presumably didn't care that Roll was a judge, let alone a conservative. If the judge ever believed he was safe, he must have questioned the feeling when he got death threats after a more recent pro-immigrant ruling.

*Did he feel he was protected by the fact that he owned a gun? He was not actually carrying it when he got shot. Its also very human to regard something as having a magical influence while forgetting we actually need to use it appropriately for it to perform its function.

*Did he have time to see Loughner was using an extended magazine and to think, "Oh shit"?

*Do you think if we could communicate with him now he would feel that his own death was just "the price we pay for liberty"?

Cutting spending

Conservatives are ecstatic that even traditionally liberal states like New York and California are forced to cut spending now. But nobody is putting it in perspective, that the reason there is no money is because Wall Street gambled it all away. Worse, many of the gamblers did not lose their own money, only ours, and are as rich as Croesus and getting more so.

English health service

The British coalition government is pushing ahead with a privatization of the National Health Service and is pulling in American insurance and health care companies as consultants. That is like hiring a pedophile to teach parenting.

Supreme Court conflicts

According to an article in the Times for January 20, billionaire Charles Koch has paid for junkets by justices Scalia and Thomas to attend political retreats in Palm Springs. Since the disastrous Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for Koch and people like him, the two justices have a very apparent conflict.

Nobody supervises the Supreme Court and (other than Congress regarding such behavior as grounds for impeachment) there is no forum to which you can appeal a justice's refusal to recuse himself from a case. In the old days, most Supreme Court justices would have cared about the appearance of propriety. Both Scalia and Thomas represent a new breed of justice, who apparently don't give a fuck.

Don Siegelman

Convicted Louisiana governor Don Siegelman (a Democrat) is just the latest in a long line of politicians after the Citizens United decision who are saying (or could say): since the Supreme Court decriminalized all transfers and juggling of money in campaigns, legitimized virtually all behavior no matter how disguised or sleazy, please remind me what I am being sent to prison for?

Reprinted almost without comment

Governor Robert Bentley of Alabama on inauguration day: "Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as ther savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister..." Good one.

Gun research

According to an article in the Times for January 26, the NRA and its fellow travelers have succeeded in choking off virtually all federally-financed health research pertaining to guns by CDC. Uninsured people being shot and requiring major surgery and other interventions has been a major contributor to hospital bankruptcies and closings in New York and other urban areas. Gun violence is a festering health crisis that has largely contributed to the health care emergency in this country. Guns are unique as the one commercial product almost wholly exempt from any kind of study or legislation pertaining to health or product liability consequences.

Frances Piven

Frances Fox Piven is a 78 year old sociologist who is receiving death threats for an article she wrote for the Nation in 1966, suggesting that everyone eligible for welfare apply. Right wing crazies have for some years postulated a Piven-ACORN-Obama nexus to bring down the U.S. and turn it over to socialism via welfare, granting mortgages to people who can't afford them, and all that. Glenn Beck now mentions her obsessively and the result is that she is getting emails from people saying they have a bullet for her. It is really shameful. People like Beck have a special responsibility to consider the consequences of their words.


Egyptian crowds following the Tunisian model are calling for the fall of Mubarak's authoritarian, arteriosclerotic government. Sad to say, we are watching one scenario after another where self determination will end up redounding to the benefit of the Islamists, resulting in more killing and more launch-pads for international terrorism. It is a bitter day when democracy becomes a threat to international security.

Later--It now appear possible that the government of Egypt could fall (and maybe Yemen and others). Al Qaeda must be wondering how to surf these developments to victory; the group which specializes in suicide murder reflecting how to leverage a mass protest movement taking place in the sunlight. Regardless of whether terrorism is invited in the door or not, the people who are being pushed out after decades of authoritarian rule happen to be the same ones who made a grudging but practical peace with Israel. Anxiety in that arrogant country, which has continued prevaricating about reaching a solution in the West Bank, must be very high. I also feel deeply sad for the President, meanwhile, that we may lose the middle east on his watch.

Paranoid Style

I have just been revisiting Richard Hofstader's classic 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". The only thing which has changed is that the wild-eyed, who were still quite marginal when he wrote, have become mainstream. Otherwise, its a beautiful description of the mentality of a Glenn Beck excoriating a Frances Fox Piven:

History is a conspiracy, set in force by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade. The paranoid spokeman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms--he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point: it is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy. Time is forever just running out.

Love that phrase, "Time is forever just running out".

It was mildly soothing to be reminded that Robert Welch of the John Birch Society thought President Eisenhower was a Communist tool--even wrote a book about it.

Blaming the Victim

The already controversial report by the President's panel on the financial crisis ties nicely into the immediately forgoing "Paranoid Style" para and the "Frances Piven" discussion above it. Republican members of the panel have dissented from the report and issued their own statements, trying to cast blame on...poor people who want houses. Right wing whack jobs, including Glenn Beck, are claiming the mortgage crisis was caused not by greedy Wall Street traders creating and selling increasingly insane and unfounded derivatives but by....then 76 year old Frances Fox Piven! Apparently, the Cloward Piven Strategy inspired ACORN and the young Barack Obama to seek government intervention to force the banks to give mortgages to unqualified ghetto black people....forced to give subprime mortgages, the banks had no choice but to create mortgage backed securities to protect themselves...and the beat goes on. You couldn't make this shit up.