July 2016
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net


The British vote to exit the European Union is fascinating on many levels. It is a stunning example of the phenomenon Walter Lippmann predicted in Public Opinion in 1922, that our lives and surroundings have become so complex that the Enlightenment model of peoples democratically able to make informed decisions about their circumstances had completely broken down: that entire nations can be manipulated into harming their own interests. Working class communities which received millions in annual subsidies from the EU voted resolutely to leave, just as the American red states which are most highly dependent on government benefits such as Medicaid and Aid to Families With Dependent Children regularly vote for candidates promising to eliminate government (the confused sign "Get Your Government Hands Off My Medicaid", though possibly apocryphal, expresses this mindset perfectly).

Brexit also combines two other phenomena which fascinate me. Joseph Tainter wrote in Collapse of Complex Civilizations that many such falls, such as that of Rome, were actually semi-controlled simplifications by populations which found their political relations unprofitably complicated: taxes to Rome are too high, services absent, let's switch allegiance to the local Goth king. Charles Perrow in Normal Accidents wrote of complex, tightly coupled systems in which two things, either of them manageable alone, go wrong simultaneously, for example the wing de-icer is not working but the thermometer reporting outside temperature is misreporting that it is warm outside the plane. Perrow's theory has been successfully applied to more imaginary and political misadventures like stock market crashes and the 2008 mortgage meltdown (the mortgage based bonds are crap and the ratings agencies, supposed to act as a gauge, are misreporting they are grade AAA). Brexit may be a convulsive simplification a la Tainter, and at once a Perrovian "normal accident" in which the British-EU relationship is leaking immigrants, violence and fear while the internal flow of information communicating what the EU actually accompished for Britons (like those subsidies) was overwhelmed by the negative and sophistical chatter.

In any event, Brexit's value as a case study is emphasized by how rapidly the victors, such as Boris Johnson, backed away from their madcap claims and admitted they never meant to win. Brexit's lingering question, which is being repeated in every nation of the world right now, and which has actually echoed from the beginning of time, is: Are we players or tools, Kantian ends or means? Or, as Lippmann asked, can there really be meaningful "consent of the governed" in a world of screaming propaganda?

Boris Johnson

The worst people on earth commit murders, but the second worst class are the willing tools of power who lie about murder and other critical data points to manipulate us as Kantian ends. Johnson was revealed as one of these terrible liars, and immediately rewarded by being named Foreign Minister in the new Theresa May administration. Similarly, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently named the atrocious, mendacious Avigdor Lieberman to head defense, despite the fact that Lieberman is that rare Israeli who has never actually served in the military. A world wide trend to honor dangerous clowns by placing them in positions of power, and the perception that right wing regimes need the support of clowns, does not bode well for our future.

Lying about murder

A recent American example of lying about homicide is the trope that Freddie Gray, who died of head trauma after being transported chained but not seat-belted in a Baltimore police van, somehow killed himself by thrashing around. Since the beginning of political murder, power has sadistically spread the rumor that its victims somehow executed themselves with bullets to the back of the head and then buried themselves in pits.

I detect a more subtle dishonesty in the judge's finding that the prosecution did not prove intent or even negligence beyond a reasonable doubt. Attacking obvious causation is a form of lying. Baltimore police officers in 2015 did not know that seat belts are a necessary safety measure? Really?

Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch

This is already old news completely overtaken by many more astonishing misjudgments and small scandals, but I was disheartened by Bill Clinton's self destructive bad judgment in visiting privately with attorney general Lynch while she was still deciding whether to prosecute wife Hillary. In the 90's I called Clinton "President Fuck-up". Today we terribly need Hillary to defeat Donald Trump and save American democracy, such as it is, but she, like her spouse, seems to have a penchant for careless self-harm (the whole private email server thing is an example of self inflicted wounding).

Religious freedom

I noted in the Spectacle mission statement in 1995 that much of the time I seem to be stating the obvious, but if Catholic employers and groups are to be permitted to refuse birth control, what legal or moral argument would you have for telling Christian Scientists that their health plans are required to cover medicine or surgery? If I start a religion tomorrow which maintains that asthmatics are possessed by the devil, where do you get off requiring my health plan to prescribe albuterol?

Twitter anti-semitism

I grew up Jewish in New York City, and can remember only three instances of overt anti-Semitism directed personally. Two were outside the city: a child on Cape Cod told me he could "smell a Jew a mile away", and much later a co-worker of mine in Texas mentioned that Jews "killed our Lord"--a statement I had already heard at age 12 or so from a Polish-American child in a Brooklyn schoolyard. I had read in the New York Times about people who didn't think Jews were white. This was remarkably little prejudice on the whole and I grew up disregarding it. Today, if you have a Jewish name and post on Twitter, you are likely to receive reams of hate mail, including a drawing of an oven into which a picture of your face has been pasted. Some of the recipients had issued Tweets critical of Donald Trump; Trump was asked whether he would ask followers not to respond with hate mail and remarkably replied "I have no message for the fans". Other people have received this kind of hate for Tweets as nominal as a photograph of a cat outside 10 Downing Street. For twenty years, we have issued some kind of inexplicable pass to Internet trolls, so I want to say loudly that this is NOT normal, NOT all right.

Syrian proxy war

Apropos of things which should be obvious, no one seems to be mentioning that our support of anti-Assad forces fighting ISIS while Russia supports Assad seems just like an old school proxy war from the 1950's or '60's. Is the Cold War coming back?

Trump and Putin

One of the most memorable television moments ever was in an X-Files episode, "Jose Chung's From Outer Space": a gray alien in a jail cell muttering over and over in a broad American accent: "This can't be happening....this can't be happening...." I frequently feel these days that life can't be real, that I am in a coma having a Philip Dick-influenced fever dream. One of the indicators is the extent to which Donald Trump is defending and praising ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin, in a nation where sixty years ago, a composite photograph (actually labeled "composite photograph") of Senator Tydings with Communist Party head Earl Browder was enough to end a career. Yet it seems Trump's most fervent supporters don't care. This can't be happening...


Also in the "this can't be happening" category was Rudy Giuliani ranting so bizarrely at the Republican convention I expected froth to fly out of his mouth. If Trump wins, we will see the spectacle of people we thought somewhat mainstream lining up to be good little Trump doggies, like 'normal" Germans supporting Hitler.

Mike Pence

So the model for vice presidents apparently is a look of beatific inocence verging on mental retardation, a la Prince Myshkin. Pence, tapped for Trump's vp slot, kept repeating, "I am very humble", leading me to believe he was bragging about his humility. However, I now think he meant "humbled".

NRA silence

It has always been hard to figure out the NRA message coherently. Is the organization actually arguing for a Hobbesian right of all of us to shoot each other in self defense? No, its supporters know who they are, and the NRA never needs to spell out the fact that it is advocating for a right of white people to shoot their black neighbors. NRA's silence was crashingly eloquent when a black man with a concealed carry license recently informed a Minnesota cop he had a legal concealed weapon, reached carefully for his ID and was shot to death anyway. In 1969, when the Chicago police conducted a murder raid against Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, for legally owned weapons in his apartment, the NRA was also not heard from.

John Hinckley

I don't really understand why someone who shot a President ever should be released from prison. Ever.