March 2012

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

Battle of the Billionaires

Now Rick Santorum has his own billionaire hedge fund backer, trying to keep him alive in the primaries by countering Newt Gingrich's and Mitt Romney's pet billionaires. If you really believe the next instantiation of American democracy should be a billionaire-opoly with occasional infighting, raise your hand; but be prepared to explain why this is more desirable than you and me having a voice. All the rest of the nattering, about job creation, freedom of speech, etc., is lies, insofar as it skirts the issues of why it is preferable billionaires should choose presidents.

Later--"Expose the metadata" was an early slogan of the Spectacle. So much of the information about what's really going on requires interpretation, is not on the lips and tongues of the people making pronouncements. What Newt Gingrich says, and what he really thinks and wants, are likely radically different. But the final takeover of the American political system by dueling billionaires, facilitated by the "Citizens United" decision, is not subtle or hidden; it is on the surface, obvious, like a battle of whales or elephants. I keep saying this, but one day I would really like to hear Justices Scalia and Thomas explain, without legalese or indirection, why they believe this to be the proper resting-place of American democracy.

Health and religion

I touched on this last month, but it continues to astonish and offend me that religions are claiming a First Amendent right to conduct worldly business, such as health care, according to religious principles. Since religions tend to be socially based on very retro propositions, very biased and violent in nature (eg, the stoning of homosexuals proposed in the Old Testament), allowing them to run worldly businesses--health care, banks, etc.--based on religious principles allows terrible bigotry back into zones of life where it has long been prohibited. If a transvestite is brought into a Catholic emergency room with a stab wound, should they be permitted to refuse treatment and let her die? If not, what is the rationale for refusing to dispense birth control even when medically necessary for health?

Home schoolers

People should either go to public school or not, but should not be permitted to demand just those public services they select. Home schoolers in some states want their children to play on public school sports teams. Let them found their own leagues of home school football and baseball instead.


Not to let Greece off the hook here--the Socialist government grossly mismanaged the country, resulting in the present mess. Yet I hope someone in the new technocrat government is thinking creatively about ways that Greece can rebuild by walking away from Europe and the banks. The solution being imposed right now is to take care of the bankers, while forcing the country's middle class into decades of grinding poverty. Nothing is being done to stimulate the economy at all. There must be a better way, there as here.


Back in the 60's, as late as the '80's, bread went moldy within three or four days, cold cuts became brittle within a day or two. Much more recently, I remember tortillas becoming crusty in the refrigerator. Today, everything lasts forever; the thought of the chemicals required to accomplish that is quite disturbing. I never agreed to have them in my food: what are they doing to my body?

Genetically modified crops

Related issue: in a classic horror movie scenario, genetically modified crops are disseminating their pollen via wind and animals and infecting organic crops planted nearby. Like pollution, radiation, modified bird flu and other by-products of human ingenuity, there is no way to segregate them just for the people who created them and who want them.

What Wall Street means to me

I always disliked the financial district: it is a classic arid and empty expanse, exactly the kind of wasteland predicted by Jane Jacobs in "The Death and Life of Great American Cities". Yet my life has become completely entwined with the area: My first law job, an internship at 140 Broadway, in 1978, was opposite Zuccotti. Later, I worked for several years next door at 150. On September 11, 2001, I emerged from the subway at the corner of Church and Liberty just after the second plane hit. The Occupy encampment was very important to me, though I was only there a few times. And then, the night of the eviction, November 15, I was arrested at the corner of Broadway and Cortland. I become more mystical as I get older, and sometimes sense that mysterious karmic currents are at work, quite independently of what I think and feel.


All human life is based on narratives. Their truth or falsity is almost unimportant--almost--so long as they are complete and sustaining. They fence out the dark, protect us from rain and wind, ensure our lives make sense. As Ernst Renan noted, nations are based on a commonly believed narrative; so are families; a courtroom trial and verdict are another, less benign type of narrative.

DNA testing is no respecter of narratives. Things which feel emotionally true may not be at all scientifically so. DNA is a binary "true-false" switch in a world of fuzzy intuition and sentiment. In families, it frequently reveals that we are not related to the people we thought we were--because of an unrevealed adoption, or because someone cheated. In death penalty cases, it often reveals that the individual who the prosecutor accused, with pointed forefinger and righteous indignation, did not actually do the crime. How inconvenient DNA is, to anyone who does not revere truth over narratives.

Mitt Romney

Romney is pure prevarication, based on blind ambition. Like John McCain, he would be of Presidential calibre if he actually had beliefs, stood for something other than power at any price.

In 2008, he wrote a Times editorial calling for the car companies to be allowed to go bankrupt. Obama saved them by bailing them out instead. Now Romney is campaigning in Michigan, clainming that's what he meant all along.

A theme of the campaign, of American politics in recent decades: lie to people you've harmed, people you have no intentioon of saving, to get them to vote for you. Then screw them. Then lie to them again. Screw them just as many times as they will let you.

Unemployed youth

The Times for February 16 had a heartbreaking piece about younbg British people who are losing hope they will ever find a job. It seems obvious to everyone--journalists, economists, everyone except the hard-core ideologues--that austerity does not create growth. An entire generation in Britain, Greece, and possibly here, is expected to take a bullet, uncomplainingly, so that the bondholders can get their money back. The human piece which is missing from the calculations, which the ideologues always miss, is: why would anyone sit still for that? What did a British twenty-two year old do to deserve unemployment for life? If you know its you or the billionaires, what philosophical stew can they possibly feed you to make you think it should be you? Why wouldn't you opt for any other system, any transformation, any revolution which might offer you some dignity?

Mortgage malpractice

Real humans, homeowners with job and child worries, with aching feet, fell into the hands of people used to thinking about abstractions, and who treated them like abstractions. This is the only explanation I can find for the continuing revelations that people whose sole concern was to bundle mortgages into securities didn't care what they actually owned, what paperwork was done, what could be proven or whether the homeowner had received notice. Now they are indignant when asked to prove their humanity; they are being summoned back into the human world and asked questions about how they could foreclose on homes and forget they were inhabited by people.


According to the Times for February 17, most Americans benefiting from Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance tell pollsters they have never used a government program. In 2008, a photo (real? faked?) went viral which purported to be a Tea party sign: "Get your government hands off my Medicare".

It would appear that this vanity and self delusion is the channel by which Republicans lie to working people. The Republicans want them to think that cutting government will only deprive the cadgers, the hustlers, the lazy, the undeserving poor of support. But Republican policies actually attack working people, who are being tricked into supporting their own destruction.


I had imagined I would get involved with the ongoing life of Occupy Wall Street somehow. It hasn't worked out, though I could have tried much harder. I've made a few visits to the public atrium at 60 Wall, where the committees meet. I sat in on one meeting where the people visibly detested each other, and came away with the impression that, like most committees I've attended in any walk of life, there would be maximum talking and minimal action. There are a lot of committees which have meeting times still posted on the web site who seem to have vanished--last Sunday there were three groups meeting and another four or five listed, of whom there was no trace. I was there to attend a legal activists' group I had attended the week before, which also didn't show. I have an impression, for a group which is supposed to be leaderless, public and accessible to all, that many of the Occupy committee members are paranoid and cliquish and prefer to deal only with people they know. A couple of times, when I asked people "Is this the legal group?", I got the slight headshake coupled with the thousand yard stare, when you would expect the reply to be, "No, we are 'Visions and Goals'". Its quite understandable, given the relentless pressure they feel from the NYPD, but still: I sat in the legal meeting the week before and watched the people there exchange email addresses without ever asking for mine, one guy, I am pretty sure, shielding the paper with his hand as he wrote. It makes me want to wear my Desk Appearance Ticket for disorderly conduct as a badge: I got arrested for you; now talk to me.

Affirmative action

The Supreme Court has taken up an affirmative action case, though it decided one only ten years ago. The Court had a different, less conservative, composition then. Most spectactors believe that the court, having prohibited quota-based programs in the last decision, will now prohibit the touchier-feelier approaches which take race into account as a factor. Everyone knows that the result will be the continuing disappearance of African Americans and Latinos from the universities. Just as the First Amendment provided covering fire for "Citizens United", the Constitution will be used as an excuse to throw out the last vestige of anti-discrimination on the grounds, of course, that such weighted admissions discriminate against white people. So the foundational antidiscrimination law will be used to restore the apartheid state--a moment worthy of "1984" in its twisted logic.

Put it into context, against the backdrop of the destruction of the black middle class during the real estate slump, and its doubly heartbreaking. What a fake out: decades of drawing a group of people, against whose anccestors America committed the most terrible crimes, into the core of the supposed democratic and equal opportunity American experience--and then ejecting them again.


Best ethical spectacle of the year, and possibly of the decade: the small government crowd pushing an anti-abortion ultrasound bill requiring placement of a probe in the vagina of women seeking abortion. Wow.


The Supreme Court just heard argument of a case involving a federal law criminalizing lies about military medals. At first blush, the case seems narrow and possibly uncontroversial, but the subtext is huge.

Law and morality are not, and should not be, co-extensive. Many immoral acts are properly not criminalized. In general, we allow criminal penalties for lies only in very special cases. Fraud is illegal, because someone relies on a lie and is harmed, usually by giving money. Perjury is illegal, because the business of courts and the government cannot run smoothly if there are no consequences.

But we don't usually penalize people when false statements lead to no harm. Although no one in particular wants to stand up for the guy who dishonestly claimed to have a Medal of Honor--not even his own attorney--the only rationale for penalizing him is that his lies damaged the reputation of the medal or the military. This is dubious--no damage is done to the reputation of anyone as long as the lie is believed, and it is hard to see how his unmasking caused any harm either. This seems instead to be a way of punishing people for disloyalty, or a lack of patriotism-- anyone who would lie about military service, the logic is, doesn't really care about their country. And that puts us on a slippery slope towards punishing other kinds of verbal disloyalty or lack of patriotism.

Finally, there is an interesting back story here. If the court rules against the defendant, it will create a new exception to the First Amendment, which protects a wide variety of false statements (the lie that 4000 Jews were warned not to come to work on September 11 is clearly First Amendment protected, for example). That would confirm my suspicion that the Court doesn't really care about the First Amendment, except insofar as it protects billionaire contributions to super-PAC's.