May 2012

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

Trayvon Martin

Bruce Clark in last month's issue argued against a rush to judgment in the case, and so did the always thought provoking Ethics Alarms blog, which I have started to follow. Have I rushed to judgment, and responded too emotionally, in my writings on the case? As an ethical dilemma, insincere or ignorant public condemnation of someone, as a knee jerk or in pursuit of a hidden agenda, is a Bad Thing. Did I fall into it?

Let's start from the premise that there is some category of incident in which Bruce and Ethics Alarms would agree we are not over-reacting: one in which the answers would be clearer, the racism overt. Let's say, for example, we wouldn't be receiving the same admonitions if this were a truck dragging incident. Nobody is going to say, "When the truth comes out, you'll understand why they dragged an innocent man to his death behind a pick up truck."

I picked a deliberately absurd example, because most of us would agree that there is no explanation which would make us feel that dragging someone behind a pick up truck is acceptable. In fact, we would recognize that anyone who made the assertion ("well, maybe the boys oover-reacted a bit, but what was he doing in their neighborhood?") would be immediately recognizable as someone alien to us, horrifying, someone who does not share the ethical rules we endorse.

But people fighting a "rush to judgment" in the Trayvon Martin case are doing some mental math which is essentially similar. In order for there to be an acceptable explanation for what happened, you have first to accept certain basic premises, that George Zimmerman could acceptably patrol his own neighborhood with a loaded weapon, disregard a 911 dispatcher's instruction to stay in his vehicle, and pursue a suspect before we can consider the possibility that the outcome--the shooting to death of a young, unarmed neighbor-- could under any circumstances be acceptable. If you don't accept the basic premise, that George Zimmerman had the right to deputize himself and wander around with a loaded weapon looking for perps, then (just like truck-dragging), there is no explanation which would legitimize the outcome.

In fact, looked at this way, the perfect illogic of the situation becomes evident. Suppose an incontrovertible eyewitness comes forward to say that she saw i. Zimmerman display the gun; ii. Trayvon grabbed for the gun; iii. Zimmerman shot him. Since Zimmerman is not a cop, and Trayvon would have had no reason to know Zimmerman was not a homicidal maniac about to kill him, attempting to take the gun would have been perfectly legal and appropriate, if fool-hardy. In fact, under the Florida "Stand Your Ground" law's perfectly senseless logic, Trayvon too would have been standing his ground. Looked at this way, "Stand Your Ground" becomes a duel law, in which two people each have the right to attempt to use force against each other, and the law immunizes the one who is better armed or a better shot, regardless of any analysis as to who was right or wrong, provoked or was provoked. What an insane result.

This analysis also tends to confirm my other thesis, that the shooting of Trayvon Martin was unlikely to happen in the absence of a racism so innate that some commentators, such as Bruce and Ethics Alarms, claim not to be able to see it. If George Zimmerman had shouted racial epithets or been wearing a hood, they say, it would have been a racist episode. But the fact that he didn't doesn't absolve him--there is much more context that has to be understood. To this, I apply something I will name the "Jonathan Wallace" test. I first wrote about it in an article years ago on the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the man who was killed by 41 New York City police bullets while trying to enter his own apartment building. I suggested an experiment: I could stand for hours on the steps of my own building in Brooklyn, "darting suspicious glances" at cars passing by, ducking my head back into the shadows--the behavior of which Diallo was accused--and no cop would stop to interrogate me about my right to be there. Ever. Even if I had the patience to try the experiment for months and years. Because I am a middle aged white male, and everyone assumes I have the right to be wherever I am.

Now contrast Zimmerman's account to the 911 operator of Trayvon's behavior: "This guy looks like he's up to no good. Or he's on drugs or something. Its raining and he's just walking about, looking about." (Ironically, a Florida producer for NBC was just fired for deleting these words from a clip, on the theory that including them somehow would have given a more balanced view of Zimmerman.)

My problem is that this is exactly how I walk home, even in the rain: I amble, lost in thought; I stop and stare at unexpected things, a potted plant on a neighbor's stoop, a parked car. My walking style is consummately suspicious; would George Zimmerman have phoned me in, chased and shot me? If not, then I think it really did have a lot to do with race and the hoodie.

Finally, its worth mentioning something else important that Clark and Ethics Alarms seem to ignore: a public "rush to judgment" is contraindicated when the authorities are doing their job. If there had been any visible law enforcement interest in George Zimmerman on day one, then we all would have been better advised not to shout. But a major motivating factor was the statement attributed to local cops immediately, that there was little they could do, their hands were tied by "Stand Your Ground". Under those circumstances, I think we are all entitled to stand up, to put on hoodies, and come out in crowds, just as we were for Amadou Diallo and the other unarmed black men shot by cops during the Giuliani administration, when, instead of righteous indignation and a promise to correct it, we had the spectacle of the mayor justifying the killings, slandering the dead, and somehow implying they had it coming.

In the first year of law school, we learned about the doctrine of "res ipsa loquitur". When a barrel rolls out of the upper window of a warehouse and smashes the head of a passerby on the sidewalk, we don't need to know every detail of how the barrel got to the'window in order to find the warehouse owner responsible. The reason is that "the thing speaks for itself," that there is no innocent explanation of a barrel flying out a window. Its the same thing here: in my ethical rule book, there is no explanation that immunizes George Zimmerman for his decision to go looking for confrontation in his neighborhood with a loaded weapon.

Gun brainlessness

Which leads us to a closely related issue: how the influence of the Murder Lobby (the name by which I will ever after call the NRA and its "fellow travelers") has led us to an absurd, illogical and immoral reality, that we are expected to suspend every day morality and common sense regarding any incident in which a gun is involved.

Last month, I off-handedly compared the Tyler Clementi case at Rutgers with the Trayvon Martin case. Clementi's roommate pointed a webcam at him, captured him making out with a man, and showed the video to friends, as a result of which the roommate has been convicted of a hate crime. Zimmerman went out in his neighborhood armed and ready for confrontation, identified a young black neighbor as suspicious because he was "walking about, looking about", followed him and shot him to death. Zimmerman gets a free pass. Q. Why is one civilian pointing a webcam at another without his consent blameworthy, while pointing a gun at him is not? A. Because its a gun.

One of the ways you can judge the morality of an outspoken individual or group is whether, across time, their pronouncements mesh with one another to form a consistent rule set, or whether they seem to be driven by situational advantage and produce a patchwork of inconsistencies and double standards.

The NRA has its Second Amendment narrative, in which it is zealously protecting all of our liberties; what I believe to be the real narrative is the desire of certain billionaires to sell every American multiple weapons, regardless of the consequences. The result is a patchwork of irreconcilable pronouncements. The same people, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, intimate that we have an innate Second Amendment right to shoot government officials if they get uppity--and then are "shocked, shocked" whenever someone like Jared Loughner actually uses their legally purchased Glock with extended magazine to shoot a government official.

Now the Murder Lobby crowd is all coming to the defense of George Zimmerman, and for the same reasons. The billionaires will sell more weapons if we are all able to carry them down the street concealed in every state. If the result of the shooting of an unarmed teenage neighbor is a reconsideration of "stand your ground" laws, they will sell fewer weapons. So the more moderate defenders of the Murder Lobby, like Bruce Clark, will simply opine against a rush to judgment, while others will actively slander Trayvon Martin, imply he had no right to be there (in his own neighborhood) acting the way he was, dressed as he was, or go even further, as some have, to imply he had it coming because he liked certain rap music, or used epithets that were not very nice about female classmates, in his Twitter feed.

We had a lot less of that in the Tyler Clementi case. The reason for the difference is not, in my opinion, because Tyler was gay and Trayvon was black, and we are nicer to gay people than black people. The difference is because the latter case involved a gun, so the Murder Lobby is gearing up to say and do whatever they deem necessary to protect the sales of their product. At a palpable cost in logic and consistency--and in human life.

Gunter Grass

The international Israeli propaganda machine is in full cry after German novelist Gunter Grass, who pointed out in a poem this week that Israel too is a threat to world peace. Grass was vulnerable, because he served in the SS when he was a teenager, so possibly he should have kept his mouth shut. But the Israeli bully squad doesn't care; they have equally effectively gone on destructive rampages against American Jews like professor Norman Finkelstein. Israel is propagating settlements on Palestinian land, tear gassing and occasionally killing protestors, refusing any peace initiative whatever, and, most destructively, talking up an attack on Iran that will start the next war with Islam as Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. But anyone who says so should beware, as the attack squad will do everything not just to counter his arguments, but to turn him into an international pariah and cause him to lose his job.

No nuts

Just noticed that the Chock Full of Nuts coffee I bought at the corner store has the following printed in large, bold characters on the lid: "NO NUTS! 100% PURE COFFEE!"

Trayvon again

The decision of the special prosecutor to charge George Zimmerman with second degree murder seems to be a free and fair conclusion by a strong and indepndent personality who (as she has publicly said) cares not about race but only about protecting victims. I am glad someone in law enforcement has that philosophy, as the overt goal of the Murder Lobby, in buying passage of the Stand Your Ground law, was to protect the shooters. Florida has now, pending the outcome, planted its feet back in the real and reassuring moral world in which the rest of us, outside the Murder Lobby, prefer to live.


A prosecutor who protected Sheriff Joe Arpaio by falsely charging some of his more outspoken adversaries has been disbarred. This is a case study of how little dictatorial zones can spring up in a democracy; Tammany Hall and Arpaio's little kingdom, in which laws and rights can be ignored with near impunity for decades. (New York City is arguably one of these today; see this month's main article on the NYPD.)


He's out of the race. Gingrich, hoping to be the spoiler, is still in. Ugly, insufficiently secretive billionaire money is still rolling in to everyone's coffers, illustrating the thesis that what we have in America now (with the cheerful, corrupt blessing of the Supreme Court's bought majority) is government of, by and for the few. In a few years, if this is not stopped, the whole country will resemble the piece of Arizona ruled by Sheriff Arpaio.

Murder minds

I was remembering how I once received a credible death threat from a Vietnam vet enraged by my writings about gun control. Across the years, it becomes more amusing. Not the actual words, just the subtext: "You think the NRA encourages a depraved, murderous mentality? I'm gonna kill you, you bastard!"

Helping homeowners

The market crashed in 2008. Its 2012. In four years, we have done so little to help underwater homeowners, despite announcement of multiple programs to do so. Money is set aside which never actually reaches the people in trouble. Is it a scam, the appearance of action without the reality? Or have we lost the ability we once had actually to do anything? As a general rule of the universe, incompetence is more common than conspiracy. Incompetence, after all, is an effect of the Second Law, while conspiracy fights it with startling efficiency. And its hard to fight the Second Law.

Death penalty repeals

Its amusing,and very human, that states are bailing out of the death penalty now, never on moral grounds, but because killing prisoners is too damn expensive. However, whatever gets us to that result, is all right.

Credit card predation

Banks are apparently again pumping out credit cards to the population most likely to be harmed by them, the recently bankrupt and those with bad credit. And charging insanely high fees for them. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the new agency which was supposed to protect us against this, just issued a rule tolerating up front fees for such cards, part of the general pattern of predation. This itself is a mystery, after all the controversy over founder Elizabeth Warren and her campaign to create the agency to protect that population. The real take away lesson, however, is capitalism's increasingly high tolerance for activities which cause untold suffering, but are profitable for banks.

Gunners on Trayvon

The Times interviewed a bunch of ordinary people at a NRA convention, who took a surprisingly nuanced attitude on the shooting. They didn't back Zimmerman if he was out looking for an adventure. That's good (and it was a really useful exercise by the paper). It highlights the fact that there is a distinction between the Official Narrative Keepers, here the NRA with its 1%, sell lots of guns to everybody subtext, and the average Americans who may buy into the narrative without really getting the subtext, but who retain some common sense and everyday morality. While the Murder Lobby wants lots of cowboys out there with guns, the 60 year old guy with emphysema who fears getting mugged by a 22 year old doesn't want Glock-packing adventurers patrolling neighborhood streets.


Numerous foreigners attempted to come to Israel for an annual cultural event in a Palestinian village, and Israel prevented most of them from boarding planes in foregn cities, then stopped others and escorted them back to outgoing flights so they never exited the airport. At least one retired politician wrote that the "crackpots" should have been met with flowers and escorted to the Arab event, because then they would have remained marginal and irrelevant, while excluding them made them important. A day or two later, an Army officer was videotaped cracking a peaceful Danish protestor in the face with his rifle. In general, it feels as if the rightist Israeli government, exemplified by the insane billionaire Avigdor Lieberman who represents the violent fringe the government must court to keep its coalition, is driving the car off the cliff.

New York memory

Raise your hand if the words "General Slocum" mean anything to you. I believe that if I walked down a Manhattan street asking the question, barely one person in a hundred might know the answer. The General Slocum was a steamboat which burned in the East River in 1904, killing more than 1000 people, an entire young German American comnunity from Yorktown on an excursion. It is the largest loss of life in a single incident in New York until the September 11 attacks. It happened 108 years ago. And nobody remembers.

Walk down that same street asking about the Civil War draft riots and maybe one person in thirty will have read something about them in school. In 1863, enraged by the Civil War draft, New York's working class whites killed every black person in sight. That's 149 years ago, Maybe you know vaguely that slavery was legal here for about two hundred years, until 1827.

I am always astonished, that we live in a city with a violent, sad history, and have so little memory.

What Dewey means to me

The venerable 1000 attorney Dewey LeBoeuf law firm has been bleeding partners, and is in trouble with its own banks as a result. Nobody there would know my name, but I worked there as a summer intern in 1978 when it was called Dewey Ballantine, and the place had one of those karmic ripple effects on me which has lasted the rest of my life. I thought I was doing fairly well there, though the surroundings were stultifyingly dull. It was simultaneously exactly the kind of job we were all supposed to take after law school, and a vision of excruciating boredom. There were thirty summer interns and tbe way things worked, Dewey would offer twenty-nine or thirty of them full time employment after law school. You didn't want to be the radioactive one who was so awkward or strange he didn't get the offer. I had received a letter from Coudert Brothers offering me work in Paris, so I jumped the gun and told Dewey I would be taking the following year off from law school. What I should have done: waited until they extended the job offer, then told them. Instead, the response was: "We don't make job offers to people who aren't going to be available." I didn't much care, because I knew that I would rock Coudert Brothers and instead of being a Wall Street drone, would become a highly cool international lawyer. But I was the awkward, strange one that year in Paris, and besides, Coudert, which apparently hadn't gotten the memo, hired only one of the seven or eight interns who joined me there in summer 1979. The following year at Harvard, I sat in sixty job interviews where I had to explain why neither Dewey or Coudert had asked me back. I got only one job offer, from a firm in such turmoil that, the day I showed up for work in September 1980, they weren't expecting me; the partner who had hired me had quit. A year and a half later, I was in solo practice; I endured Harvard, and then totally avoided having the Harvard experience after graduation. Seven years toiling as an associate at Dewey or someplace similar and a possible partnership, and I might be a completely different person today, living in Connecticut, mildly Republican, collecting Steuben glass.

Playing post office

I asked the question here some time ago why the Post Office has to function as a viable business. This seems to be one of the tropes the Republicans have put across in order to justify shrinking or killing it. But isn't it obvious that there are aspects of government of such symbolic or practical importance that they should never be privatized? Government, before it got demonized as some kind of simultaneously dull and evil hydra poking its heads everywhere, had a simpler reality: it represented the means by which we come together to arrange our lives, share a common identity, and live in peace and fairness. In that context, doesn't the post office play a symbolic role by knitting us together, as the sublimely serious and unintentionally silly book and movie, "The Postman", recognized? The United States is in fact defined as the geographical stretch within which you can write Aunt Zola a letter which you send by affixing a first class stamp. If we ever didn't have a post office, or the capability to send that letter, that would be a major step towards the balkanization of America, its dissolution into a collection of little corporate fiefdoms with nothing in common.

The flip side of the Republican crusade for Post Office profitability is that, every time the organization discovers a new area in which it might actually make money, such as handling cash transfers, the Republicans (beaten up by the powerful corporate lobbies they fear and respect) prevent it. So the Post Office simultaneously has two missions: turn a profit; but don't compete with any of our billionaire contributors. Poor thing, we may as well take it out in the backyard and shoot it now.

Denying racism

The old South, which was a horrible, violent place, was at least honest about its racism. It hadn't occurred to anyone, during slavery and Reconstruction, that there was any need to pretend that black people were treated equally. Today, we have learned how to pretend there is no racism by breaking every situation down into details of such granularity that nobody is permitted to see an overall pattern. You look at the Trayvon Martin shooting from the 5000 foot level and it assimilates neatly into a very disturbing narrative: a self appointed white "neighborhood patroller" with a gun shot an unarmed black teenage neighbor. Unarmed black men and teenagers, even black cops out of uniform, seem to get shot with disturbing regularity in our country, by cops and citizens who incorrectly saw them as criminals. But commentators like Bruce Clark and the Ethics Alarms blogger want us to see the situation with such particularity that there is no pattern: as a single encounter, a unique one, not to be placed against any larger background, just two men who came together in a mysterious way that ended in the death of one of them. At this level, there is no race, no racism, nothing to protest.

The New York City police use this same close-focusing approach to justify stop and frisk. The vast majority of the people stopped and searched without probable cause are black and Latino teenagers. This contributes to the result that a stunningly high percentage of black males in our state have served some jail or prison time. There is no proof anyone has advanced that they have pot or other contraband, or for that matter weapons, on them more often than white counterparts; they go to prison more because they are searched more. Police Commissioner Kelly insists he is keeping us safe, and that even the "good people" in black and Latino neighborhoods support stop and frisk. But what makes the program so outrageous is that in my lifetime, we have never seen "stop and frisk" instituted in a Mafia neighborhood, in Hells' Kitchen where the Irish Westies gang hung out. If you believe that race plays no role, I have a bridge to sell you.


It may become too hot in the United States in the decades to come, to grow corn. Not consistently too hot; just liable to temperature spikes that kill crops. We may wind up buying corn from Canada.

Its getting harder to tell whom we are destroying the planet to benefit. Perhaps in the end it is just the oil companies who will be the last corporate entities standing, having munched on everyone else, though it is hard to figure who will be able to afford to buy fuel, or vehicles in which to burn it, in a dystopian future.

Google autocomplete

Supporting the proposition that we swim in a sea of right and wrong the way fish do in water-- and never notice the ethical aspects of most everyday decisions and incidents--is the Google autocomplete function, to which I had never paid the least attention. Arguably, it creates an echo chamber of the most scurrilous searches done by the most idiotic Google users, and then perpetuates them when the rest of us poor saps click on them out of curiosity. If you want to see what I am talking about, start a search "Why do Jews" or "Why do blacks", and see the choices Google suggests to complete your search terms. Worse, scurrilous people can game the system, presumably by sitting tirelessly at their computers doing thousands of searches on '[Your name] [defamatory phrase]". You can even influence the system inadvertently. When for example you want to check out a business or activity you have never heard of, which may be quite legitimate but seems too good to be true, you might search "[name of business] scam", blissfully unaware that you are creating the very inference in other people's minds you are trying to rule out in your own. What is particularly remarkable about the "autocomplete effect" is that there need not be a single web site out there which contains the wrongful content; the suggestion enters your dropdown list merely as a result of people typing the terms while doing searches, regardless of whether they find anything. In Italy, France and Japan, people have won lawsuits against Google, forcing the company to remove defamatory autocomplete content, but that would be harder to accomplish in the United States. Here, the Communications Decency Act, while beating up small speakers like you and me, paradoxically gave the search engines and email providers almost complete immunity. Google will not allow you to turn autocomplete off any more, enraging many users, and layering one ethical issue on top of another. Its a racist, defamatory echo chamber you can't avoid, except by using Bing instead. Google should get rid of autocomplete entirely, as its momentary slight convenience (which the sophisticated users on Google forums by a vast majority do not want) is far outweighed by the scurrilous gossip effect.

Children and safety

When I was a child in the 1960's, our parents rarely knew where we were during the day. By age 12, I was taking the subway all over Brooklyn and to Manhattan by myself, and riding my bicycle from my home in Flatbush to Coney Island and back. As long as we showed up by supper, our parents were content. By the 1970's, children never went out by themselves, and parents knew their location every minute.

I am thinking about this because the cops are still looking for Etan Patz, who vanished on his way to school 33 years ago. What changed? Are their actually more murderous pedophiles in the world, at a time when violent crime in general has dropped, or is it purely a media-driven sociological hyperawareness of danger?

I supect the latter. The population of the world has doubled since I was 12, so there are undoubtedly twice as many people who are dangerous to children, but there are also twice as many potential victims, so the odds probably haven't changed.

One more Trayvon thought

Florida has indicted band members for a hazing death resulting from a beating. Prosecutor and jury will start from the assumption that there is no realistic or reasonable explanation for beating someone within an inch of his life. Think how the chemical balance changes under "Stand Your Ground" (which most non-gun-wielding defendants are not clever enough to raise). If the defendants claimed to have beaten the victim because they felt threatened by him, "Stand Your Ground" requires the police and authorities to accept this unless they have very specific and compelling evidence it is not true. So the violent get a free pass, and the more successfully violent they are--if the victim is dead and cannot speak for himself--the better the defense.

Murdoch madness

A British government committee has issued a report noting that Rupert Murdoch is unfit to run the News Corporation. Duh. The man is still eagerly and merrily blaming his subordinates for the climate of corruption he created. I am glad he exists, as an overt spectacle, a moral object lesson as to the effect of the possession of billions of dollars upon the human mind and soul.

Why this is not a blog

I tend to resist new technologies for about ten years, then adopt them when I am sure they are inevitable. That is why I never owned a Betamax, eight track tapes or a Palm Pilot.

So I have resisted the temptations of blogging. A secondary reason is that "blogging" is more a media driven perception than an actual technology. When I launched the Spectacle in 1995, there were web sites which (unlike my monthly efforts) were updated daily by their authors, with 3 paragraphs of fragmentary prose and several links. Blog technology facilitates the daily fragmentary update. As such, its not really a new or different species of animal at all.

For many years, I have realized that publishing a monthly "issue" on the web is a very quaint and antiquated concept, as even the big, important newspapers have evolved away from the idea of a daily paper, as opposed to one which is continuously updated. Reading the "Ethics Alarms" blog these last few weeks, I have been reminded that this "Rags and Bones" column, could easily form the basis of a blog. I add a discrete paragraph here almost daily; why not post that content to a blog? I could still use it as the basis of a monthly column.

I may yet do that, but my reasons not to seem good ones. I write something here impulsively, and have the rest of the month to look it over, think about it, change or elucidate it, or (occasionally) delete it. Post it to a blog, and its out there instantaneously. Then there is what I will call the "blog tapdance"-- the knowledge that blogs must be updated continuously or they lose their audience. "Oh my God! Two days have elapsed and I haven't blogged!" The monthly schedule is organically very comfortable for me, second nature after seventeen years. I am worried, since I suffer from logorrhea anyway (almost Tourette's), about blurting out too much too quickly. A little forethought and revision is a beautiful thing.