February 2016
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

The Base

Trump is an endlessly interesting phenomenon (the last time I remember being this interested was in a Paris post office in 1978, when a man in a ski mask pointed a semi-automatic weapon at me for three minutes). I will have a lot more to say about him in the months to come, but here is one scattered thought: he seems already to have exploded the whole concept of the Republican “base” we heard so much about these last years. Republicans on the far fringes of public opinion about abortion, gun rights, Obamacare, were said to be “playing to their base”. Well, what I long suspected to be true now seems confirmed, that the base was….the Koch Brothers. Whom Donald Trump has blitzed right by, dissed and disregarded. The real base is the people voting for Trump, many of whom don’t mind Obamacare and aren’t very self righteous about abortion. Whatever happens now, the implications for the future of the Republican party are immense….the party looks like its in shards right now, and when it re-materializes may look very different. I am also gratified right now by the spectacle of the Koch Brothers pissing away millions for nothing….the only upside, and it is a very pale one, of the Trump phenomenon is that of the monster killing the mad scientist.


Yes, I am speaking ill of the dead, shame on me, but he was the most sophistic and corrupt justice on the Court today, and maybe ever, traveling to Koch Brothers events and faithfully expressing the party line in his rulings. He was a highly intelligent man who constantly made statements he was too smart to believe, like his argument some years back that no innocent defendant had ever been executed. He was also a bigot, grotesque in his homophobia. His statement at the University of Texas argument just weeks before he died that black students might actually be better off at lesser schools deserves to become the phrase he is best remembered for. He was a malign presence on the court. High in the “No shit!” department is today’s report that Justice Thomas finally asked a question during argument after years of silence--apparently he is stepping up to fill the vacuum left by the deceased. I wonder if Thomas, who went to Yale, would agree with Scalia’s statement about lesser schools for black people.


You were my news service of first resort, but not any more. Now that you are recoiling from your (already rather diluted) progressive identity, and firing or demoting people like Alex Wagner and Ed Schultz, and trying to present as just another “mainstream” news service like CNN or Fox (really?), I’m just gonna watch CNN, as you have absolutely nothing left to differentiate yourself. Becoming bland out of desperation? That’s not a strategy.

Watching the "Super Tuesday" coverage last night, how strange to see Rachel Maddow sitting silently by, in peach lipstick and blue eye shadow, while Brian Williams did all the talking. Also, the graphic of Trump used to announce primary results looked nothing like him, vastly prettified, as if the network was suddenly afraid to portray the candidate as he really looks.

Pocket dials

We all accept our smart-phones making unexpected and sometimes embarrassing calls on their own, but that’s only because modern high technology capitalism has eliminated our last expectations of quality. It really wouldn’t be a very hard problem to solve.


I signed up for Netflix years ago, very uncritically: it was the only game in town and it was, for a glorious few years, a repository of every movie ever made. Today the company is severely diminished, lacking many of the old classics (the DVD’s wore out or cracked and were never replaced), and losing bidding wars for glamorous new content. I can browse the choices for an hour without finding anything I want to invest two hours watching. Maybe because its available cash is used up trying to license Bridesmaids V or whatever, Netflix has not one Humphrey Bogart movie available for streaming. After writing that last sentence, I paused to see, for comparison purposes, how many Brad Pitt movies were available, and was stunned to find only six, including such unforgettable classics as “Spy Game”, “A Stoning in Fulton County” and “Johnny Suede”. No “Big Short”, “Twelve Years a Slave”, “Twelve Monkeys”, “World War Z”, “Fight Club”, “A River Runs Through It” or “Seven”. I suspect Netflix is done--they have very strong original content, for which I would pay $1.99 per episode or so, but will probably discontinue my monthly subscription. The industry now seems to consist of companies charging you monthly or annual subscriptions to deliver very limited content. Let’s get rid of paywalls and go back to charging by movie or show only. If I have a sudden desire to stream an obscure black and white samurai movie from 1964, I really don’t want to have to worry about whether Hulu or Amazon Prime has it, any more than I pay a subscription fee before I can order a copy of an out of print novel from that same year.

Internet access

A Times story last week described children trying to get their homework done in the library or even aboard a parked school bus because there is no longer Internet access at home. Today, you have to have Internet to do homework. Just one heavily symptomatic element of the death of the middle class, the creation of a vast new underclass in this country. To really put this in perspective, think about Marco Rubio's repeated campaign promise to deflect such children away from useless higher education and into high school programs to teach them a useful trade. Put them on machines; they won't need Internet.

Apple encryption

As far back as the 1990’s we were already debating whether government could dictate that you build a back door in your product so your users can be spied on more easily. The answer always seemed like common sense: Government could on the same theory dictate that you are not allowed to send emails in Sanskrit or Croatian (there were such rules regarding use of transatlantic cables in the 19th century) or that sealed letters are not allowed, only postcards. Since when did we incur a moral obligation to design the world to facilitate spying? If there is no such moral obligation, how do you derive a legal one?

Israel and the Enlightenment

Israel’s big sell to the non-Jews of the world was that it was the only Middle Eastern nation with Enlightenment values. Now it has abandoned even the claim, which was never as true as the publicists wanted us to believe; Israel never solved the problem of being a liberal democracy and the Jewish state simultaneously. Now under Netanyahu, Israel is transforming into an admittedly fundamentalist state, not pretending to be anything other (and facing a still tiny insurgency, I recently read, which believes in an even more theocratic state, a kind of Jewish Iran). Of course, we are seeing a worldwide flight from Enlightenment, in pure panic and sophistry, but the only outcome when you jettison Enlightenment is another Dark Age. There is no other.