June 2011

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

City University and Tony Kushner

Shame on City University for cravenly yanking back an honorary degree it offered Tony Kushner. Kushner, a Jew critical of some aspects of Israeli policy, is America's most brilliant playwright; "Angels in America" is a classic I believe will endure. Jews and others really have a right in our society not to like Israel's politics and behavior; being critical of Israel neither translates to being anti-semitic or (for a Jew) self-hating. City University's behavior, besides being cowardly, is monomaniacal and reductive and backfires by confirming the very thesis that American Zionists wish to attack, that the pro-Israelists so dominate the American political discussion that you can't get even get an honorary degree from an American university if you ever criticized Israel.

Later--the university rightly reversed the decision.

Newt Gingrich

...is a sad has-been, proudly leaning on the much younger third wife, with whom he cheated on his second wife while attempting to impeach Bill Clinton for cheating on his. Forgotten, by-passed by events since 1999, he emerges again from the miasma of hypocrisy with nothing new or different to offer, asking a forgiveness and forgetfulness he never offered his adversaries.

Later--wow, that half million dollar Tiffany bill sure gives some additional insight into character....you can't make this stuff up...

Bin Laden

The circumstances of Bin Laden's death seem to confirm a sense I had years ago. He was an employer of very tough men, but was not tough himself. The reason he wasn't living in the caves of Waziristan, where he would certainly have been safer, was that he couldn't. He needed to be comfortable, live in a mansion, have his wives and children with him, and take walks in the backyard. He didn't wear a gun at all times, and was unarmed when shot. You hear stories of people who are being hunted, who sleep in a different place every night; he needed to have his stuff around him, to be stable. He was a rich boy, playing at murder, buffered by money; just another billionaire with a desire to warp the world.

Another anomaly: Bin Laden's liquid, very human eyes, so evident in photographs, which appear to establish him as a soulful human being, while confirming the theory he was very soft. They contrast so strangely with George Bush's eyes, which are frighteningly vacant. The only consistent explanation I can find as to why a mass murderer looked soulful is that he did not regard the rest of us as human. That way, he could be kind to the only "real people" he believed existed, while planning the murder of the rest of us, to the last day of his life.

A cactus

I don't remember how many years ago, probably ten or fifteen, I bought a three dollar cactus at Kmart. I don't remember why, either; I am terrible with plants. Unlike other plants I inadvertently killed, the cactus was undemanding, and thrived. All I have ever done for it is water it every Wednesday, and it has grown so much I have re-potted it twice. Today it is nine stalks sharing a pot.

Sometimes, it sends out a delicate shoot which puts forth little white flowers. It never did so until I had it five years or so. Then it stopped and we hadn't seen the flowers in several more years. Now, some mysterious signal--something in the sunlight, perhaps-- has told it to do so again. Over the years, among the plants and pets that didn't thrive, I have gathered several--a turtle, a vine, an orchid and this cactus--which require only a little careful and steady attention, and which, by persisting, have become of great symbolic importance to me. So long as they are well, so am I.


Now that Bob Herbert has left, the only remaining Times columnist I find readable is Paul Krugman, who this week delightfully described our government as an "insurance company with an army".

Israel marches

A month or two ago, I wondered in this column what would happen if a lot of unarmed Palestinians tried to march across the borders into Israel. It happened this week, on Independence Day, and the Israelis shot them. Remains to be seen if it was a one time thing or a weekly event. If the latter, the Israelis will face the South African fatigue problem: at what point do you get sick of killing?


Former professionals are sleeping in cars and abandoned apartments, and people are dourly predicting violence between the unemployed and--wait for it--the union protected public employees, who have made no concessions. Meanwhile, the European Community is forcing austerity cuts and loaning expensive money, pushing Greece further underwater. If we play our cards wrong, the U.S. could look (more) like Greece in a few years.

If you live long enough, you get to see a lot of changes. In 1977-78, I began a year abroad wandering around Greece, and ended wandering around Kenya. The former country was crime free and mildly prosperous--solidly lower middle class, with no visible poor or discontented. And we felt safe everywhere we went in Kenya, too. I wouldn't care to visit either place today--Kenya is actively dangerous and Greece seems like its about to be.

Straus Kahn

The head of the IMF was just arrested in NYC for assaulting a hotel housekeeper. Rumors are coming out about attempted rapes from earlier in his career. It illustrates what a strange world we live in, where women run countries and companies and die in combat, yet continue to be treated like cattle by powerful men. I can't see into the mind of a man who sees no inconsistency between vast public responsibility and sexual assault.


The Supreme Court just ruled that police don't need a warrant if they smell pot, knock on a door, and hear toilets flushing. Its all logical, but maps very poorly to reality. The truth is that cops lie. I am not singling them out; everyone in public life lies sometimes.

How do I know? I have heard a cop lie about me. I received a summons as a teenager for distributing leaflets in a New York City park without a permit. I handed out one more after a cop told me to stop, but in court he testified I gave away a dozen. He was casual and it was clearly business as usual. I had a vision of the volume of lies that one judge undoubtedly heard every day.

During those years--the '60's and '70's--"dropsy" cases became notorious. Cops used to illegally stop me sometimes and make me empty my pockets--no probable cause except my hair was long--but they never found anything. If I had been holding, the cop would have testified that he saw a joint drop from my pocket, hence "dropsy".

The Supreme Court case is a license to lie. Imagine trying to prove that the cops could not have smelled pot in the hallway, or that you did not flush the toilet when you heard a knock at the door.


Gad, what a tired and distressing story. Adultery at any level involves lies and destruction, but sex with the housekeeper--a woman very much dependent on him economically, and whose freedom to say no would be very much in question--is particularly ugly. I was a big Schwarzenegger fan back in the day (particularly liked "Running Man" and "Predator") but the California electorate (and the American voter in general) really must be doubted for electing a man whose only credential was playing dumb barbarians and killer androids in the movies.

College grads

College graduates are deeper in debt for student loans than ever, and increasingly finding jobs you only need a high school degree to fill. Why go to college? Its a painful symptom of a much deeper social illness, which I will examine in the next month or so in an article to be entitled "the Unframing of America"--a country whose middle class can no longer dream, let alone do.

1967 borders

I was surprised by all the fuss over the 1967 borders, which I had always thought were understood by both sides as being the sole reasonable basis for a Middle Eastern peace treaty. As you probably know, one of the main pleasures of writing the Spectacle is interpreting what language really means. Here is the subtext of the Netanyahu government's arguments about the peace process:

1. While the Jewish people had a legitimate aspiration to a state of their own, the Palestinian people do not. This is the only reason anyone, Israel or other, would oppose United Nations recognition of Palestine.

2. Alternately, any legitimate aspirations to a Palestinian homeland have been compromised or lost through Palestinian violence and threats. This is the real meaning of the "defensible borders" argument, which is grammatical and sounds sensible on its face but which is analogous to the Dungeons and Dragons "bag of holding" whose contents far exceed the apparent volume of the container. What "defensible borders" really means is: "Israel must be allowed to appropriate Palestinian land, in order to effectively ensure its safety from Palestinians trying to regain that land, and their supporters."

3. As part of the subtext, violence practiced by Israelis against Europeans (King David hotel bombing, murder of Count Bernadotte) and Palestinians (Deir Yassin) while trying to secure their state is to be forgotten, while Palestinian crimes are to be highlighted.

The only way to rationalize all this is through the following statement believed or endorsed by some Jews, Christian fundamentalists, and American politicians: The Jews are a unique people with a special destiny which entitles them to the land of Israel; the Palestinians are interlopers with no right to be there.

Political philosophies based on exceptionalism are generally doomed to end in bloodshed and self-destruction. The current Israeli government, forging ahead provocatively with Orthodox settlement-building in Jerusalem and elsewhere, has no interest in seeking a middle ground and making peace. With the rapid changes in the Arab world, where democracy does not bode well for Israel, the Israelis seem increasingly isolated and self-deluded, a government jumping off a cliff on the premise the Americans will provide a net.

Cops and rape

I wanted to wait until the verdict was in to write about the New York trial of the two cops who repeatedly visited an intoxicated woman in her apartment.

It is a fascinating phenomenon that for years, even when police corruption was at its worst, the department often manifests a strange and lonely integrity, dismissing officers who have been acquitted of charges but are still in a dubious or false position that questions their ability to continue as cops. These two were fired after being convicted only of misdemeanors, and acquitted of rape.

As a former emergency medical technician who took numerous intoxicated women to emergency rooms where they could safely sleep it off, the events raise a lot of questions. If the cab driver called 911 to report an intoxicated female, the dispatcher should have sent an ambulance, not the cops. If the cops were mistakenly sent, their first action should have been to request an ambulance. There is no version of the events which would explain or justify the police taking her into her apartment, where she could have fallen, choked on vomit, or tried to kill herself. Even more so, there is no possible acceptable reason for the cops visiting her several more times during the night, even if they hadn't lied about their whereabouts in order to do so. These police were so far outside of protocol that they were correctly fired from the force.

Airbus crash

The preliminary report on the French Airbus crash into the Atlantic reveals a classic problem with highly complex technology: the pilots were apparently trying to interpret or compensate for failing sensors instead of flying the airplane. Using instinct nd training while remaining aware of real-world conditfions such as turbulence and attitude of the airplane might have saved them, while staring at the contrrol panel did not.


I saw a prediction that world population will double again, by 2050 or so. I am glad I will not be here to see that. Humans have just enough ingenuity to solve all the problems which kept population in check, and not nearly enough to figure out how to sustain themselves on a tiny planet while doubling their numbers every fifty years.

Wrong side of history

Chicago is planning ahead for a warming climate, while the right wing continues to deny the problem, or that it is caused or contributed to by human activity. I am still always amazed that smart people with egos, proud people, care so little that they are on the wrong side of history, and will be remembered for denying the obvious and working so hard to prevent the solution of critical problems. Are they made stupid by ideology or simply bought by energy company money?

On a side note: The extraordinary series of tornados in the South, which have killed hundreds of people, is not officially connected to global warming or human activity, but when you mess with something as complex as our atmosphere, it may take time before the linkage becomes evident.

Speaking of people unafraid to be on the wrong side of history, the most pathetic cultists are the ones who set dates for the end of the world, like the group who saw May 21 come and go without a cataclysm this year. If you're going to make wild predictions, best to make ones that can't be falsified in any human timeframe.

Canadian health care

It has been virtually impossible to cut through the ideological bullshit to get a real understanding of the Canadian health care system. I finally got answers from someone who has lived in Canada many years, who sketched the limits and benefits of Canada's single payer system. As the American right wing trumpets, there are long waits for tests, and Canadians sometimes do cross the border and pay cash for MRI's and other diagnostics. However, once you have a diagnosis, the system is imepccable, and assures you have everything you need at little expense. By contrast,in the American system, you can get an MRI tomorrow, and go broke paying for it and the ensuing treatment. I would choose the flaws in the Canadian system in a heartbeat.

White phosphorus

LIfe is strange. Sometimes an idea or merely a word comes at you randomly from multiple directions simulataneously, for no apparent reason. Today's word is "white phosphorus". This is a substance used by militaries which ostensibly illuminates the enemy so that artillery can be better targeted, but which also horribly burns human flesh. Its use on people is forbidden by international law. During the recent Gaza incursion, the Israelis were accused of using it against humans.

In "Lebanon", a superb, chilling Israeli war film set entirely inside a tank, the paratrooper in command of the mission visits the tank crew to explain that Israel "respects" this international law and for that reason, white phosphorus shells, when fired, must never be mentioned on the radio. The same week I saw it, I happened to pick up Dave Grossman's "On Killing" and found an account of his own training as an officer in the United States Marines. He recalls being told in a number of courses that the semantic workaround for international law is that white phosphorus should always officially be targeted against vehicles, never the people inside them.

California prison crowding

Justice Scalia wrote a roaring dissent to a Supreme Court decision ordering California to decrease its prison population, which is packed into gymnasiums and being deprived of health care in ways the majority determined to constitute cruel and unusual punishment. I have often noted here how commentators confuse legal, moral and practical arguments (the death penalty should be abolished because immoral and expensive, for example). Scalia deflects away from the illegality of California's treatment of prisoners, concentrating on the practical effects of releasing felons into the environment. Yes, this is undesirable, but if it happens, will be because California failed to build enough prisons and provide enough services to be able to keep them incarcerated. If practical arguments trumped all others, we would be free to deal with the excess prisoners by the formation of American Einsatzgruppen tasked with shooting them in the head.

Scalia is often incautious these days in his behavior--his travel to Koch brothers events is a prime example I recently mentioned. His writing has suffered as well. IN his dissent he refers to the release of "happy go lucky" felons into the community. "Happy go lucky"? The phrase smacks of racism and was very carelessly chosen. I can imagine sociopathic felons, violent felons, and many other adjectives, but "happy go lucky" felons are actually very hard to imagine. I imagine felons are as nervous about the next convenience store robbery as you and I are about closing a deal or selling a manuscript. The phrase tells us much about Scalia and nothing about the people he fears will be sent back to live among us.

It is not hard in a Google search to find references to happy go lucky black people on plantations during slavery and Reconstruction, happy go lucky natives welcoming tourists on South Sea islands, etc. Here's one from a page at simplypsychology.com entitled "Stereotypes", describing the perceptions of white students at Prinecton in 1933: "the pictures of other ethnic groups included Jews as shrewd and mercenary, Japanese as shrewd and sly, Negroes as lazy and happy-go-lucky..."

Verrazano one way toll

I am fascinated by stories of unintended consequences of technology and policy decisions. In checking on the Verrazano Bridge toll preparatory to a rare visit to Staten Island (a hideous $13), I found a Cobble Hill neighborhood association web page demanding that the one way toll be made two ways. This seemed counter-intuitive to me, but the reasoning was interesting: truck drivers traversing New Jersey, who have lots of time and not much money, avoid throughway tolls by driving free across the Staten Island bridges, and enter and leave Manhattan for free, adding to New York congestion and pollution.

Fat, broken, slow technology

My main computer these days is an HP Mini netbook. What a great concept: a fully functional small laptop for a couple hundred dollars, perfect for writers who don't need to simulate battlefields on the screen, or process huge music or movie files. I waited a long time to own something I could slip in a backpack or briefcase and forget about, then set up in a bagel shop or on the train to work on a play or do email.

The problem is that the implementation sucks, for a lot of reasons. This morning, when I un-hibernated the computer, it froze (seems to happen every three or four times I wake it up). I rebooted it and timed it: almost five minutes from hitting the switch until I could fianlly type the address of my email server into Firefox. Five minutes is a ridiculously long time to wait to be able to do the simplest function on a computer you just switched on.

Part of the problem is that Norton Utilities, which I never purchased (I am using another anti-virus solution instead) launches a series of dire marketing messages at me. I wait for the browser and wind up closing three or four Norton screens first. Another problem I suspect is that the Internet has become too large and demanding for all but the several thousand dollar desktop with maximim chip speed and RAM; what with scripts and cookies, there is way too much information flying back and forth for my limited processor. I blame both the operating system (Windows 7), and the Internet, the latter for placing all kinds of stuff on my computer without my permission, the former for allowing it. Also, the Windows OS seems fat and sloppy to me; it always seems to have a lot of shit running I know nothing about. I lack the ability to tell what belongs there, and what may have been put there for someone else's illegitimate purpose. Any of our computers might be, unknown to us, trying to hack the Pentagon or sending Viagra offers to a few hundred thousand strangers (or requests for money to our friends).

In 1984 (as I never tire of telling you) I had a Morrow MicroDecision running the CP/M operating system. It had no hard drive, two 256k floppies, and 256K RAM. And it ran like a demon. The C prompt came up in a second and WordStar an instant later. I never had to watch an hourglass for five minutes, as I do all these generations of technology later. And the software back then did everything I needed. Any additional capabilities loaded into Microsoft Word are irrelevant to me.

I don't bame the developers as much as I do the people managing them: lazy, preseumptuous monopolists, self deluded assholes who believe their own press, and who know we have no choice any more but to buy what they are selling, no matter how crappy.