September 2014
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

A Righteous Gentile

The first instance was reported of a “Righteous Gentile” recognized by Israel returning his medal in reaction to what happened in Gaza. Henk Zanoli, a Dutch man in his 90’s who had hidden a Jewish child during the war, was honored by Yad Vashem. Zanoli’s great-niece is a Dutch diplomat married to a Palestinian man. “On Sunday, July 20, an Israeli fighter jet dropped a bomb on the Ziadah family’s home in al-Bureij. The bomb killed the family matriarch, Muftiyah, 70; three of her sons, Jamil, Omar and Youssef; Jamil’s wife, Bayan; and their 12-year-old son, Shaaban.”


In the 1980’s and 1990’s, I was one of those enthusiastic voices blessing the Internet’s forerunners (Compuserve, FIDO) and the thing itself as a new instantiation of free speech and direct democracy (shades of Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community). Today, after a quarter century of participation and observation, I can say with confidence that the Internet is, at the personal, granular level (I am not speaking just now of the mega- and meta- Google and Amazon level) much more about anonymous trolling than it is about producing, or protecting, the next Thomas Paine. You can find (or provoke) fresh examples every day, but the people who drove Robin Williams’ daughter off Twitter on the day of her father’s suicide were pretty good examples.

Rick Perry indicted

It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, but from the point of view of the rule of law, the indictment of the Texas governor by the Democratic district attorney’s office in Travis County looks disturbingly like old fashioned Tammany Hall style brawling. It all started with his criticizing and opposing, the Travis County D.A. when she was arrested for DUI. I would be a hypocrite to support Democrats doing to Republicans exactly what I oppose the latter doing to the former: trying to use impeachment, for example, to punish the taking of a legitimate political position.

Broadcast TV, fax, landlines

There is an engaging Lucinda Williams song (actually it is a cover) in which the refrain is “Feel like I been shot and didn’t fall down”. I am always fascinated by dead technologies that remain standing for years or decades after there is no further rationale for their existence. Here are a few:

Broadcast TV has no particular reason for existing (neither does cable, really). I suspect that eventually television will entirely be on a Netflix-streaming style model. We will all know that the latest episode of our favorite drama becomes available for streaming at 8 p.m. on Thursday night, so the producers can still replicate the excitement, the timing and cost of ads, and the next day’s water cooler conversation.

Fax has been dead for twenty years. I don’t keep a fax machine any more (there was a time when I had two) and when I am forced to send one, use a free Internet service. When people want to send me a fax, I tell them to email me instead. In a time when we produce almost everything we send out on our own computers, there is no reason to print a copy, make an analog copy in the fax, then send it electronically. Relatively rare paper documents which we want to forward can be scanned and emailed. Recently I have on several occasions relayed paper documents to other people by photographing them with my cell phone.

I haven’t had a telephone landline in years but use my cell phone as my only phone number, and so will everyone else eventually. One thing all of these technologies have in common is expensive infrastructure which just isn’t needed: telephone lines and television broadcast towers, for example. Fax involves buying an archaic machine that replicates one function of a cheap, versatile device you already own.

This is a good place to mention that one version of the universal cell phone-camera-computer-reader-music player-navigation etc. device of the future may be a ring you wear on your finger, which projects your keyboard and screen onto available surfaces.

Al Sharpton

I really despised him back in the Tawana Brawley days, as a shifty-eyed demagogue who didn’t care whom he hurt on the path to power. I still don’t trust him--he is neither on the level of honesty or consistency of a Dr. King or a Malcolm X-- but I am fascinated, I have to admit, by the phenomenon he has become. He is a campaigner with a national media platform in an old fashioned model, like a Father Coughlin. In a sense he is a counter-Limbaugh, but the difference is that Sharpton appears on nightly prime time “news” outlet in which we would usually expect that the person reading the teleprompter would not have a political identity and status unrelated to the media role. Although Limbaugh also has a populist aspect, he is a billionaire backed by billionaire dollars and advancing a blended Cato Institute/Moral Majority type agenda. Sharpton, who is equally ambitious and manipulative, isn’t backed by any financial interests I know of; he is sui generis and clearly, if he ever wanted to, (to borrow a phrase from Yeats) could hurl the little streets upon the great.

The right to be forgotten

There is a grudge I have born for almost twenty years. A right wing campaigner who opposed me on free speech issues on Internet forums in the 1990’s once used my wife’s name, insultingly, in a post. I hadn’t mentioned her by name anywhere, and he did it just to let me know that he and his posse were watching me. I put up a collection of some of his wilder and more absurd posts, with a little commentary, on my website, and he has written me at least twice, after an interval of many years, asking if I would take it down as a courtesy. I haven’t answered. I have a rationale unrelated to anger, which is that if you wrote to Time Magazine, asking them to modify or delete an article they published in the print magazine in 1985, they wouldn’t do it, so why should I make any changes in the historical record of the Spectacle? I don’t go back and modify anything I have written for the same reasons, no matter how wrong I was or how embarrassing the prose (I once published an article entitled “‘Interview With the Vampire’ Is the Real Pornography”, probably my personal worst.)

Now, European courts seem to be establishing a misbegotten “right to be forgotten”, spurred on by a plaintiff who wants information about an old bankruptcy to be deleted from Google search results. If this becomes policy, this law will act as a solvent destroying the entire architecture, and particularly the historical reliability, of Internet content. It is not a big step either from a “right to be forgotten” to a “right to be remembered differently”, and then we have Winston Smith completely rewriting old newspaper articles, a plot device I thought completely absurd when I first read 1984 sometime around 1966.