August 2016
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

Killer Clowns

The Brexit mess was very educational. Sometimes you can best understand what's happening to you when you observe it happening to someone else. Ridiculous, clown-like Boris Johnson, who pumped up Brexit from insensate personal ambition and then had absolutely no idea what to do when he won, instead of being justly reviled and excluded from public life, was rewarded by the otherwise sane-seeming Theresa May by being named Foreign Secretary--where he now can deal with foreign notables he has insulted in his colorful newspaper columns (he called Hillary Clinton a "sadistic nurse in a mental hospital"). In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu has put crazy clown Avigdor Lieberman in charge of the military; in 2006, Lieberman said of Israeli Arab legislators, " Collaborators, as well as criminals, were executed after the Nuremberg trials at the end of the World War Two. I hope that will be the fate of collaborators in this house." Lieberman's clownishness is accentuated by the fact that he never served in the military. The cherishing of the ridiculous such as Johnson and Lieberman is the same phenomenon that led the otherwise apparently sane John McCain to tap crazy clown Sarah Palin for his vice presidential candidate. Donald Trumpo's campaign organization, such as it is, is a veritable Clown Car. (I keep accidentally typing "Trumpo", so I'm just going to go with it.)

Why are we honoring the insane and dangerous? This is a highly important symptom of the sickness of our society. David Daley in Ratf**cked, his disturbingly named sober analysis of the Republican REDMAP redistricting project, has a very practical explanation: as conservative politicians create safe electorates, via gerrymandering or other means, the main threat comes from the far right (which also shouts louder and makes more threats than anyone else). Daley relates how John Boehner was overthrown by his own Frankenstein monster: he created new Republican Congressfolk so far removed from any idea of negotiation or compromise that they forced him out of government. May and Netanyahu are trying to placate and stabilize Johnson and Lieberman the same way.

A Clown Party, Please

The strangest element of this, to my mind, is that it isn't written anywhere that political parties need to be subject to hijacking. Parties are not even mentioned in the Constitution. If I create a membership nonprofit to deter cruelty to animals, I am not legally required to allow slaughter-house owners and dogfight entrepreneurs to seed my organization with false members and vote to change the mission. Strangely, the Republicans, who have worked so hard to deter or even end democracy through REDMAP and voter ID initiatives, are being undone by the surprising democracy of their primary and convention rules (probably because that was one democracy-door they never imagined they needed to close).

If, instead of being driven in fear by the alt-right, the Republicans found a way to expel them, the extremists would settle down to their rightful status, a minor and easily ignored third party of not much membership or standing.

Russ Feingold

Two classmates I remember from law school, who I am sure have no recollection of me, are Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold. John Roberts seemed a bit icy but super-smart. He vanished from our view at the end of first semester when he made Law Review (he didn't have to attend classes any more). Russ Feingold by contrast was one of the nicest and most modest people I have ever met (Harvard Law students have a tendency to think they are really hot shit). Later, he became a progressive and honest Senator, and then was swept away in the 2010 Republican bloodbath which included REDMAP. Feingold and John McCain had teamed up to introduce a campaign finance law, which has now been largely rolled back by Citizens United. McCain renounced his own efforts and accepted the lies and hype, most prominently by his shockingly irresponsible attempted placement of Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from the Presidency. Feingold stayed rigorously honest and got over-run. Feingold is running for the Senate this year and I hope the people of Wisconsin will elect him again, because he is simply one of the best human beings ever to have served in the Senate.

Town Meetings

In 1943, Norman Rockwell painted a series of works based on FDR's "Four Freedoms". Freedom of Speech portrays a Vermont farmer standing up to speak at a town meeting while a man in a suit, a banker or lawyer, looks on admiringly. I have seen this strikingly re-enacted at East Hampton town board meetings, when farmers or fisherfolk speak while lawyers, merchants and brokers listen with respect. At a time when national politics is dysfunctional, all insults, lies and screaming, watching my town run rather smoothly on respect and consensus gives me some hope that, in the language of Occupy, "another world is possible".

Cory Lewandoski

I have followed Jeff Zucker's career in television with some interest; he is one of those people who continually seems to have the job of inventing TV, deciding what it is. He made a grievous misstep at CNN this summer, inviting Cory Lewandoski, Trumpo's fired campaign manager, on the air. Lewandoski is still subject to a nondisparagement clause in his contract, is apparently still on Trumpo's payroll, and would probably be an adoring Trumpo-flack anyway. It makes CNN a bizarre mixture of journalism and PR, with no clear indication to the audience as to which is which. CNN's choice is somewhat more egregious than the other news channels, but they have all done the same thing: On Fox, Megyn Kelly reports on Trumpo while Sean Hannity flacks for him and advises him; even MSNBC vastly confused journalism with advocacy by putting Al Sharpton on the air among the daily news shows for a while. Not that true journalistic neutrality exists anywhere; but hiring mouthpieces and making them look indistinguishable from reporters is a new low.

Rudy Giuliani

I always disliked Giuliani, with his dread certainty and eternal grudginess. His mayoral campaign began, as everyone has forgotten, with an incident in which he stood on the steps of City Hall (inhabited then by David Dinkins) and gave a speech so incendiary it caused a police riot. He justified one of the police killings of unarmed black men which occurred on his watch with what can best be described as a "he had it coming" defense. He tried to put nonprofits and even the Brooklyn Museum out of business, to punish people who opposed him. But even at the height of his crappiness, he always seemed smart and like he knew what he was doing. Watching him rant, sweat and wave his arms in support of Donald Trumpo this summer, we have finally seen Giuliani transform himself into a Johnson, Lieberman or Palin-style killer clown.

Julian Assange

Assange actively seems to want us to have Donald Trumpo for President. Which I wouldn't have expected. Assange isn't from here and wouldn't have to live under a Trumpo presidency (unless Navy Seals capture him and bring him back but they probably would just kill him, in Trumpo-world). I resent his intervention, as I believe that I personally, and millions of other Americans, would be in great danger in a Trumpo presidency.

One million soldiers

Sometime in the last century, there was a brief-lived political puppet show on one of the broadcast channels which was rather radical and delightful. George H. W. Bush was portrayed asking: "What can I do to be the education President?" An advisor said, "Can you say 'one billion dollars'?" And he couldn't, though he kept trying: "One beel...."

One gross mistake we make in every damn war since World War II is assuming we can win it with fewer than one million American soldiers on the ground. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq one and two, Afghanistan, the world wide war against ISIS, are all the same thing. Trumpo and other voices demanding effective action in Syria, or against ISIS everywhere, should be asked: "Can you say one million soldiers?"

When I told a pacifist client that I seem unable to avoid using military metaphors in discussing litigation, she replied: "Just don't say 'boots on the ground'..."

The French burkini flap

A sad illustration of the world-wide flight from Enlightenment values was the spectacle of French police harassing beach-goers wearing burkinis, and in at least one case, apparently making a woman disrobe. A woman wearing a burkini is no different from a legal or moral standpoint than one wearing a bathing suit cover, a long dress or pants on the beach, or for that matter, from a fully dressed man. The only way to single out the burkini-wearer from any of these is through bigotry. Secondly, the supposedly feminist argument that burkini-wearers are "enslaved" is actually anti-feminist. A woman in a free society has a right not to display her body if she chooses. Forcing women to disrobe or leave the beach has nothing to do with the Enlightenment values of tolerance, self realization and religious freedom.


Not sure if I have ever said this before: I believe in Obamacare and Social Security and Aid to Families With Dependent Children and unemployment benefits, but not in trillion dollar deficits. Before some Libertarian stands up yelling, "Aha!!!!", let me say that, if 10,000 of us were sitting on a hill designing the government of a new planet (my favorite thought experiment) I would be arguing that we can have social safety nets and a balanced budget, or nearly, through middle of the road taxes and a relatively small defense budget. My chances of dying of cancer or a heart attack are much much greater than that of being killed by an Islamist (and I was under the World Trade Center on 9/11, thank you very much). But I do not stand with Paul Krugman, that deficits don't matter. One of the "books that wrote me", the most important and thought provoking I've ever read, was Joseph Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies, in which he analyzes the fall of Rome as a form of bankruptcy, resulting in middle class Romans in places like France deciding there was more safety and profit in switching allegiance to a local Goth king than in remaining loyal to Rome. The U.S. too could one day dissolve, like Rome.