July 2012

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

The Transit of Venus

At 6 pm one night I wandered up to the High Line park over the West Side, where a score of astronomy enthusiasts had set up telescopes to view the last transit of Venus for 130 years. It was a cloudy day with intermittent sunbeams, and as I waited on line by a telescope, the sun came out in full and I peered through the eyepiece and saw Venus' tiny black disk poised over the sun's limb. In my life, I have traveled out of my way to see a solar eclipse and a shuttle launch, and have also been lucky enough to see lunar eclipses and three comets hanging in the sky. All reminders that we live in an ancient, busy, beautiful universe, to which we are insignificant buzzing motes; Venus ratchets along past the sun and will do so again, without the Wisconsin recall election or Mitt Romney's latest utterances or the drone campaign against Al Qaeda or even "Karamazov" or the Mass in C Minor being of the least importance. Any night of our lives we can see starlight generated centuries ago, or touch rocks billions of years old, but we so rarely really see, living in a bubble world where our little needs and misadventures, which are universally less than trivial, appear to be of paramount importance.


The victory of Governor Walker in the Wisconsin recall election has a number of different themes. It testifies to the radical change in the American landscape created by Citizens' United--billionaires from across the country contributed quasi-anonymous money to Walker as part of a continuing national campaign to smash unions, and he outspent his Democratic adversary by more than five to one. The result also illustrates the ease with which the billionaires get us to turn on one another rather than focusing our anger on them, even though it was their real estate and derivative speculations that put us in this mess. Look around at the other divisive campaigns being financed by the Koch Brothers and others--hatred of gay people, of immigrants, attempts to divest others of the vote--and you can see that the billionaires are succeeding in sowing quite artificial division among ordinary people who might otherwise be smart enough to stand together against them.

Another example of these, related to the hatred of unions, is the story of municipalities and regions which are trying to balance the budget by cutting existing pension payments. The reasoning here is that if we are in a shortfall caused by billionaire speculation, let's not fix it by taxing the billionaires who caused it; let's divest the cop's widow (or wisdower) of grocery money. These are sad times indeed.

Ray Bradbury

He had a bizarre career. Most writers who live for decades after publishing their own best, or best-known work, either continue to receive attention and respect when it may no longer be really due (Philip Roth) or see their own formerly famous efforts fade in recognition (any dead author whose obit reveals a well-received 1966 novel you never heard of). Bradbury endured a third phenomenon: he continued to be famous for work he did before 1960, while suffering the certainty that nothing he wrote afterwards would receive any attention. The world, in other words, treated a live novelist as a dead one. Unlike other people who were arguably of the moment and couldn't endure the long decades after the moment (Richard Brautigan), Bradbury continued calmly living, working and writing for another half century after the last moment at which he had any widespread acclaim for a new work. I give him a lot of credit for being able just to go on living his life, without rage or self pity.

The Supreme Court poll

The Times ran poll results showing the Supreme Court has hit a new low in public estimation. I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as constitutional law professor and former Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox taught in a law school class I took circa 1979, the Court has to be mindful of its public persona and avoid actions which undermine its own credibility and legitimacy--a rule apparently flouted by Justices Scalia and Thomas when they travel to Koch Brothers events. On the other hand, I wouldn't want the Court to be a weathervane like our politicians are, constantly driven by ever-changing poll results. In the end, I wish the Times hadn't taken a poll about the Court, but confined itself to interviews and reportage about the Court's reputation.


Reputation is like a shiny new car. If you have a white Mercedes, you have to be alert every minute to incidents and accidents and be ready to protect and defend it. If you drive a ten year old Hyundai Sonata like mine, you don't get worked up by another scratch among the myriad it already bears.

Trayvon Martin

As more information comes out, it is now clear that George Zimmerman had injuries to his face when he went to the police station to be interviewed after the shooting. His story is that he got out of the car to see where Trayvon had gone and to look at a street sign (he claimed not to be able to remember the name of a significant street in the small development where he has lived for some years) and that Trayvon ambushed him as he returned to the car. I think the truth is something nearer this: after the 911 dispatcher told him not to leave the vehicle, Zimmerman followed Trayvon, played cop, grabbed him by the elbow and asked him what he was doing there, and possibly flashed the gun. Trayvon began fighting him in self defense, standing his own ground as he was entitled to do under the Florida law, and Zimmerman shot him. If I am right about this, it is a case of shooting someone, then libeling him. My theory also confirms that in certain cases, Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law is actually a duel law, which encourages both parties to a confrontation to stand their ground, then rewards the survivor-- the better armed or, if they both have guns, the better shot-- with amnesty.

Two Americas

It seems more evident all the time that we are diverging into two nations--one of people who reinforce one another in selfishness and cruelty, and another which feels compassion for its fellow and wants to find common solutions to our problems.

To a share house renter

To the inebriated young woman who shouted insultingly at my wife on our beach in Amagansett: I assume you are here renting a share in one of our neighbor's houses. You thought you were at the top of the food chain, the whale of the system, as you stared at the very casually dressed older couple, more haimische than elegant, on the beach. But in reality, and this is the saddest thing about you, to the young men you were with, you are the krill, served up every summer for their delectation. Which leads to an insight: virtually all the people you meet who communicate that they are a higher life form than you, are wrong. The rare person who is that much smarter than you tends to be very humble and circumspect about it.

Attorney General Holder

The schoolyard bullies of the Republican Congress held the Attorney General in contempt of Congress, the first time a sitting cabinet member has been sanctioned that way. The biggest irony is that they are professing to be shocked, shocked, by the mistakes made by BATF which allowed guns to elude control and wind up in the hands of murderous Mexican mobsters. If the Republicans had their way, there would be no BATF and a thousand times the number of U.S. guns would be freely in the hands of the Mexican mob. They are also shocked, shocked at an Attorney General resisting disclosure of internal deliberative documents to Congress, as if a Republican administration had never claimed executive privilege.