August 2017
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace


I was reading a free public domain book I downloaded via Google, Inazo Nitobe's Bushido (1914). The Samurai code of simplicity, truth and courage constitutes a moral rule-set unlike anything we have ever publicly held in America. From its inception, our nation embodied a strange contradiction, a vision (somewhat overstated) of the personal integrity of founders like Washington, Adams and Jefferson, and an exploitive and rather violent capitalist mentality, which was actually murderous in its frontier version. Visitors like Charles Dickens and Harriet Martineau noted the gap between American promise and the mid-nineteenth century reality. Nitobe noted the same thing happening to Japan as the Samurai era gave way to twentieth century values: Japan, he said, was “fast falling into the hands of quibbling lawyers and gibbering politicians armed wth logic-chopping engines of war”.

Google Books

Apropos of Google Books, the "don't be evil" company, with its unprecedented excess of capital and restless inventiveness, scanned every public domain book in every academic library in the world, or at least the Western world, it seems, then didn't know what to do with them (there is really no way to monetize the effort). So, not to compete with the books people actually sell via Google, the company attached a crippled search engine to Google Play Books: if I search for something like Nitobe's work, above, I find it immediately, because it is obscure and out of print. But if I search for a well known work like Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, the results present current editions for purchase, and hide the public domain ones.


A morally egregious comedian I no longer name had a pretty decent joke in an early movie of his: civilization ended when "a man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear weapon". Albert Shanker was the rambunctious, foul-mouthed, widely hated head of the Teachers' Union during a strike which shut the NYC public schools in the early 1960's. Of course, the filmmaker was just goofing on a long line of cheesy thrillers, James Bond tales and science fiction flicks in which tin pot dictators and madmen wielded nuclear devices.

This is the world in which the "blue wire" trope has become so familiar, annoying and amusing, as in "cut the blue wire". And in which the devices always seem to have a completely unnecessary timer, so the audience can know how long the hero has to defuse them.

Kim Jong Un is basically the real life realization of the cliche, and the times we are experiencing are as stressful as the Cuban missile crisis. I was eight years old, and understood we we were in terrible danger. But then it was the rational and relatively sane John F. Kennedy and Nikita Kruschchev eyeball to eyeball, and now it is Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. That says it all.

Back then, there was also a sense of an existential confrontation between two adversarial political-economic systems and ways of life, the Communist and capitalist worlds at the OK Corral. Today, there is no apparent difference between Kim Jong Un and Muammar Quadaffi or Idi Amin. (And not that much difference between Trump and them, either.) A nation we could otherwise all but ignore is able to create fear and suck up massive amounts of attention because of its nukes. When we set the technology free in the world, it was all but inevitable we would arrive here; I am just surprised it has taken so long. There is no apparent way to cut the blue wire without the deaths of millions. Marx famously said that every historical event happens twice, the first as tragedy and the second as farce. We are experiencing the farce version of the Cuban missile crisis.

The OK Corral

Charlottesville was emblematic of the red states' headlong rush back to the world of the OK Corral. Due to Open Carry laws, protesters are able to come out wielding impressive semi-automatic weapons. Most of these people will inevitably be of the extreme right, but there have been some hints and allegations of armed people of the left. The police at Charlottesville and other recent demonstrations in Open Carry states are rendered passive bystanders who will inevitably let civilians settle scores with one another, like hapless sheriffs in Western movies. Factor in Stand Your Ground laws, and we are obviously returning to the code duello: two armed individuals or factions confronting each other in the town square each have a right to stand their ground, with the law's defense then available to the survivor who was the better shot.

The Trump era has indeed been transformative, revealing that everyone in the political picture has a different level of honor, courage or perspicacity than you thought-- some much less, and some more, of course. The challenge to the ACLU is whether it can continue representing the hate speech contingent in this transformed environment. I understand why it always did, though I never would in my own First Amendment practice (I unabashedly only take clients I like and trust). I think ACLU took a good first step by refusing clients who carry guns to demonstrations.

By the way, could it be any more obvious today that the NRA, despite its sometimes careful constitutional rhetoric, is a white supremacist group? Its failure to say a single word when Philando Castile was shot dead, after informing a police officer he was carrying a legal weapon, was telling.

Jews for Hitler

Apropos of the transformative era we are living in, one of the most painful "reveals" has been the large contingent of Jews, here and in Israel, quite willing to support white supremacists in pursuit of their own Jewish supremacist goals--as if the violent fringe would ever really support a world in which there was a Jewish supremacist state living in peace and equality with an Anglo Saxon one. Supporting violent racists is, in Talleyrand's words, both a crime and a mistake. I read a lot of history and haven't found anything about Jews supporting Hitler in 1932, though I suppose it is possible that evidence has been elided by the historical function I call the "Forgettery".

Need for Party Fragmentation

The Republican Party's current embarassing dilemma, its inability to pass any legislation, is due to a barely concealed reality: it has fragmented into four political parties which it continues, ferociously and irrationally, to try to contain in one worn out, cracking shell. There are the "liberal" Republicans such as Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, the diminishing mainstream or Reagan Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, the Tea Party contingent epitomized by Ted Cruz, and now the violent, racist crazy fringe which has been mainstreamed by Donald Trump. The irony is, that before Trump and his base were even dreamed of, the party was already being held hostage by the Tea Party contingent, whose outsize power was attributable solely to the mainstream's desire to keep them in-house. I wrote years ago that if the Republicans ever let the Tea Party go, the latter would recede in importance and power to a level dictated by its relatively small numbers. Which is another way of saying that a Parliamentary system better serves democracy. By the way, the Democrats have fragmented into two parties, the Clinton neoliberal group and the Sanders socialists, who also have almost nothing in common.


My wife and I spent a lovely week in Aruba, where the beaches have a level of racial integration greater than I have seen anywhere in America.

World government

My belief in the need for world government at once seems intuitively correct and satisfying, and futile and rather funny. The insight that we need one is similar to another epiphany I had, that all prescriptive books about human behavior, from the self help ones to the 500 page philosophical classics of moral philosophy, can be boiled down to three words: "Be better people".

I arrived at a belief in world government years ago, by thinking about rivers. You can have an impressive number of different kinds of fights over rivers, including disputes about water usage, fishing, navigation, and pollution. These are more likely to be resolved peacefully if one political entity has authority over the entire river. New York and New Jersey have some disagreements to this day over ownership of islands in the Hudson, but will never go to war over them. In this sense, the entire planet is a river. If it is an intuitive truth that problems are best solved, in many cases can only be solved, at the level at which they occur, the only way we would eliminate an endless succession of future confrontations with Kim Jong Un types would be via a world government.

Whenever I have spoken to groups of people about world government, however, as I did at a Renaissance Weerkend conference some years ago, they have looked at me as if I was a crank, though no one has ever explained to me an alternative theory under which you can have nation states, nuclear technology and world peace.

When I speak of world government, I am not imagining a new Alexander the Great, but an actual global democracy, an imposing problem in a world of seven billion people certainly. When you say, "You are dreaming", I can only answer, "Yes, I am dreaming of survival". At times like this, I remember Thomas Huxley's comment, that "[I]f there is no hope of a large improvement of the condition of the greater part of the human family….I should hail the advent of some kindly comet, which would sweep the whole affair away”.

After all these years, I just thought of a new argument for world government: it is a moral duty under Kant's Categorical Imperative. If we are all ends and none of us are means, we have a human duty to the people who today constitute the breakage, the refugees, the starving, the sick, the victims of endless civil wars, to make a safe world in which the weak are no longer "meat the strong do eat". There is only one way to do that: world government.

The Dreamers

The Dreamers are Americans. They look like us, sound like us if they arrived here early enough, have adopted our culture and values and don't in most cases even remember their other country; many do not speak its language. They are morally blameless, having been brought here as children, and it is an act of stunning cruelty to deport them. It is one of many situations in which heart should overcome legal technicalities. Even Reagan granted an amnesty to the Haitian boat people. The Trump administration is on the wrong side of heart and history in almost every respect, and will be remembered by future generations and their historians for its gross cruelty, immorality, vanity and chaos .