July 2014
This issue's contents Current issue Index Search

Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

The Las Vegas Shooters

Do you even remember this happened? Mass shooting incidents succeed each other with such dizzying regularity, and we forget them so quickly, you may not. A couple who had recently spent some time at Cliven Bundy’s ranch brandishing semi-automatic weapons and awaiting a shoot-out with BLM, killed two policemen at lunch in Las Vegas, invaded a mall, shot another man to death who pulled a gun on them, and then killed themselves when confronted by police. Their agenda was to start a right wing revolution.

The first thing which is astonishing about this incident is that it received so little media play. What has replaced the mainstream Republican party is now arguing an agenda of ubiquitous guns, the illegitimacy of a democratically elected President, and the theory of a “socialist” takeover of America, but is then somehow given a free pass when people actually act on the Tea Party rhetoric and start the killing. Even MSNBC, usually crassly outspoken, seemed to back off the story within a day or two.

In 1932, when the Nazi Rollkommando came out and roughed up the democratic opposition and shut down meetings, was there a similar philosophy of denial and avoidance, of “If we don’t talk about this, it can’t really be happening”?

Secondly, I will never stop pointing out that we are living in the world the NRA always wanted, where people like the Las Vegas shooters have easy access to guns and the main check against them is private citizens with their own guns. But it didn’t work, as it usually does not; when the man in Walmart pulled his own weapon on them, they immediately shot him to death. THis will probably happen more often than not, as suicidal mass shooters tend to have superior weapons and more ammo, and to be more violent and reckless, than good sams carrying concealed pistols for self defense.

The NRA and Tea Party interpretation of the Second Amendment is that we all have a right to carry guns in case we have to shoot a government official someday under unspecified circumstances. But that is exactly what the Las Vegas shooters did when they ambushed and killed two cops--and also (among other examples) what the man who shot congresswoman Giffords and Judge Roll was doing. In both cases, NRA, Rush Limbaugh and everyone else in the Second Amendment landscape issued statements deploring the shootings and calling the killers insane. Does this translate into “We don’t really mean it when we say the Second Amendment protects our right to shoot government officials” or, more likely, “These aren’t the circumstances we meant”? If the latter, don’t they have some sort of obligation to clarify when it is acceptable to shoot people from the government?

Limbaugh, when he isn’t deploring shootings, is spouting over-the-top rhetoric about how close we are to armed revolution against our fascist/socialist president (and by implication, how desirable that would be).

Eric Cantor

Eric Cantor crashing in flames was fascinating for so many reasons, but the most significant and shocking take-away was that he was the last Republican Jewish guy in Congress. I had no clue. When I was growing up, I was always aware that, though most Jews I knew were Democrats, there was a significant constituency of influential Jewish Republicans, such as Senators Jacob Javits of New York and Arlen Spector of Pennyslvania. When Spector was running for president in 1995, he was the only Republican candidate not invited to address the Christian Coalition convention that year, and perhaps that was the handwriting on the wall. The party today is way too fundamentalist, anti-science, rigid and generally wacky to attract people like Javits or Spector any more. Cantor being defeated is like the canary in a mine keeling over and dying; the toxic gases are now everywhere in the Republican space.

The Tea Party solution

There is a very simple solution for the Republican/Tea Party internal conflict: expel the Tea Party types from the Republican party and let them seek their true (and much less influential) level as a minority third party in Congress. By allowing them to remain within the Republican party, the majority has allowed itself to be cowed and to bend its policy to suit a small group of extreme people. Fear of defeat in primaries has led to complete deadlock and dysfunction in Congress, as the Republican leadership (John Boehner being the most shameful offender) tries to placate people they don’t even like and takes positions they don’t believe. A separate Tea Party would have its own primaries and be unable to threaten Republicans.


I was outraged to hear Dick Cheney ranking on the President. He was the architect of our grievous misadventure in Iraq, for which he has never taken the least responsibility. Once we invaded that despotic but somewhat stable country, there was no way to put the genie back in the bottle, short of investing it with one million troops and staying there forever. Since that was never in the cards (and even Cheney/Rumsfeld had no idea that was necessary; they fired Shinseki from the Joint Chiefs for saying a mere 250,000 troops would be required), any other disaster there, such as the recent near-collapse of the government and triumph of ISIS, flows directly from the original decision. Its like handing someone a box in flames, then criticizing them when they drop it.


The Anti-Defamation League bullied the Metropolitan Opera into canceling broadcasts of John Adams’ Klinghoffer opera, though not the underlying performance. The opera, which portrays a notorious incident in which Palestinian hijackers threw a cruise passenger in a wheelchair into the sea, is not anti-Semitic by anyone’s reckoning. The American Jewish contingent which defends Israel at all costs dislikes the work because it portrays two sides to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the ADL-Dershowitz types try to beat the crap out of anyone questioning Israel, Israelis themselves remain free, as many of the nation’s public intellectuals and editorialists are doing this week, to agonize about the effect on Israeli character and morality of ruling over an unhappy, angry Palestinian population.


Thad Cochran brought very substantial pork to Mississippi in his career. That’s a whole other moral debate, but pork includes investment and jobs. What is completely amazing when poor and middle class people come out and vote for Tea Party candidates like Chris McDaniel is how obviously they are voting for their own impoverishment (and how unaware they are of it). The Tea Party is bankrolled by mad billionaires like the Koch Brothers, but couldn’t win elections if only mad billionaires voted for its candidates. Their success is based entirely on a con, a gross lie about liberty issues. The paradigmatic example was the Koch’s “creepy Uncle Sam” ad which ended with the tagline, “Opt out of Obamacare”. People voting for these candidates are actually voting against having jobs, health care, homes, and education, among many other goods that most of us think are fit subjects of governmental attention. Lincoln said you can’t fool all the people all the time--but I wonder.

Military Advisors

Marx said everything happens only twice, but American politics and history sometimes reminds me of the movie Groundhog Day. I thought of this when the announcement was made we were sending “military advisors” into Iraq. Raise your hand if you remember “military advisors” in Vietnam circa 1962 and where that led.

Speaking of Marx, I was delighted when MSNBC anchor Alex Wagner (on whom I have a major crush) quoted the old “twice, once as tragedy, the second time as farce” line, without attribution. Where was Fox News with a major “MSNBC quoting Marx” blow-back? Maybe nobody caught the reference? Its the first line of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, which is pretty good reading. You can download it for free from Google Books.

Hobby Lobby

I wanted to devote this month’s lead to Hobby Lobby but didn’t have time to do all the reading and research; maybe August. Off the top of my head, the decision is a despicable crock. It raises a host of issues on which I could write hundreds of pages, but two of the most important are Meiklejohnian decision-making and respect.

Alexander Meiklejohn, writing in the 1940’s, set forth an influential if limited view of the First Amendment. He said that the main purpose of freedom of speech is to allow the presentation of all opposing views to the legislature, which then decides which to adopt into law. This implies that once the decision is made, we all have to live with it unless we can get it changed within the system, by persuading the legislature to reverse itself later, or a court to find that the legislation is unconstitutional. Obamacare opponents have tried both approaches and failed. Along comes the Supreme Court and confirms that corporations will be allowed to subtract themselves from the legislature’s decision. Putting aside basic moral and political issues, on a practical level you would think the court would be very careful whenever holding that individuals or groups can opt out of a law. Parallels have already been drawn to conscientious objectors, Christian Scientists and the like.

Allowing people to opt out of a duly passed health care law based on supposed religious convictions really is a very dangerous precedent. Courts cannot, and usually veer away from, substantively judging the sincerity of religious beliefs. People are already flocking into court to say that Hobby Lobby should allow them to continue practicing bigotry against gay people based on religious belief. If the Hobby Lobby chain can refuse to pay for contraception for female employees, why shouldn’t my Church of Divine Respiration be allowed to refuse albuterol, on the grounds God only sends asthma to sinners? There is no logical or moral difference.

Religion through-out history has included some verifiably crazy and violent beliefs. Today it includes Christian Scientists who don’t want surgery for their children, Sunnis who believe Shiites should be killed on sight, Orthodox Jews who throw stones at vehicles rolling on Saturdays. Allowing people to opt out of majority political decisions based on possibly primitive and unquestioned religious beliefs, but not their own closely reasoned philosophical conclusions, is counter-intuitive.

If its constitutional, and I’m sure it is, to ban Pentecostal rattlesnake handling to keep people from harming themselves or their children, why can’t the government mandate that if you want to utilize the (government granted) corporate form, you can’t make decisions which single out and harm women?

Women appear to be the last significant American group who are talked about extremely disrespectfully in public discourse. Witness the prattling of George Will (whom I used to respect as a historian) about “rape victomology” or the law professor whose Hobby Lobby article in the formerly respectable Scotusblog included a joke about selfish prostitutes. The male, Catholic, old men on the Supreme Court probably found it particularly easy to decide Hobby Lobby because they were “only” disposing of the health and bodies of women.


Scotusblog is a specialist website which covers the Supreme Court. I was distressed to receive their emailed newsletter last week containing an article which I felt denigrated women (quite unnecessarily, by the way, to the main intellectual point, which is the same liberty interest the right finds everywhere). I banged out and mailed off the following response, which has not appeared:


Dr. Eastman's article in the July 8 newsletter has some substantial subtext to it that merits attention. While it is impossible for any of us wholly to separate legal analysis from personal belief in our writing, some of Dr. Eastman's choices of wording seem to me to communicate some messages worth unpacking: "apres-lunch contraceptive protection", the prostitution joke ending with the punch-line, "the wallet stays, bigot" and the truly extraordinary statement, about which I could write several pages, that "The Sandra Flukes of the world might have the 'liberty' to use contraceptives if they choose". Evidently Dr. Eastman believes that contraception exclusively is technology supporting frivolous, inappropriate and, yes, immoral lifestyle choices. He is missing the point, rather deliberately I think, and one I never imagined would still (again?) have to be made in 2014 about women's health, family planning, population, and, most of all, a woman's right to control her own body.

Dr. Eastman could, of course, have argued liberty issues without writing disrespectfully of women. Did he really need to include a joke about a selfish prostitute? Did he really need to take yet another swing at Ms. Fluke after the Rush Limbaugh flap? None of this is remotely necessary or even particularly supportive of his more intellectually respectable core argument that Hobby Lobby should have a right under basic liberty principles/ definitions of the scope of government not to pay for things in which it does not believe.

I doubt Scotusblog would have tolerated this kind of disrespect if the article dealt with rights of some other group. Postulate an African American group opposing a voter identification law, or a Jewish group opposing a cross on a hillside; if you received a manuscript from an angry adversary of either group which contained the same kind of hinted associations communicated by the women/prostitute and contraception/slut linkage, I doubt it would have run without substantial editing. In 2014 it remains easier to say really obnoxious and disrespectful things about women than other constituencies, apparently. With respect to Scotusblog, I think your radar missed Dr. Eastman's subtext.

As for Dr. Eastman's core beliefs, like some commentators on the right and some of the analysts of Hobby Lobby you have already published, he claims that the decision will not actually deprive women of contraception. The Supreme Court majority suggested that the Obama administration find another way to get contraception to Hobby Lobby employees, as it has already done for employees of religious nonprofits. To the extent that doing so depends on consent by Congress, the court knew it might be offering something that won't happen. Within twelve months from now, the issue of whether women working at Hobby Lobby can obtain contraception via their health plan will be objectively ascertainable, a matter of Miltonian truth.

However, this is likely not what Dr. Eastman meant at all, when he wrote that the Hobby Lobby decision "does not prevent any woman from obtaining contraception or abortion services". He probably means out of their own pockets, wherever they still can, and subject to whatever other bars the right can impose through new laws such as the Texas admitting privileges requirement for abortion clinics. In other words, so long as a woman can still buy condoms in a convenience store, or a Texas woman can still get an abortion in New York, we will meet the very low bar he postulated of women still being able to obtain contraception or abortion. Again, study the use of "might" in the following, as it speaks volumes: " "The Sandra Flukes of the world might have the 'liberty' to use contraceptives if they choose".

Yours respectfully,

Jonathan Wallace

Respect for law

The last word I want to say on this issue is that right wing judges are, in order to get to their political goals, undermining respect for law. And I include the Supreme Court, and Scalia and Thomas in particular, in that. When a court holds that women’s right to control over their own body are not being infringed because Congress might provide an alternative that the justices know perfectly well that their own party will never allow, what we have is not justice but a semantic trick. Similarly, judges finding a rational basis in laws requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges, which they know quite well most local hospitals will not dare give, are elevating dishonest form over substance when the result, as intended by the politicians, will be to close almost all the clinics. The message to disfavored, newly re-marginalized groups is clear: you will not receive justice in our courts, so don’t expect it. To which the only answer is: No justice, no peace.