September 2015
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

John Boehner

John Boehner’s resignation from Congress illustrates that the man has a foundation of character, which circumstances until now had given no reason to expect. It was evident all along that the zealots and helots to the right of him had forced him into postures of humiliation, made him say things he didn’t believe. His essential weakness radiated from him, compared to iron-armed speakers like Tip O’Neill. Boehner presented as a weakling, an opportunist, a leader driven and chivied by his ostensible subjects to such an extent he was no leader at all. If he was capable of such a resignation, I would have expected it before the last government shutdown. Better late than never though; he is a mensch at last, for cheerfully recognizing and telling the world he won’t tolerate any more of this intolerable nonsense, which is destroying Congress, preventing work from getting done, and advancing the ambitions of a small, rowdy and intemperate group.

Hillary Clinton’s emails

The vicious disassembly of John Kerry, who was drowned in a mudslide of lies, epitomized the sickness of modern politics. The Republican senators who cheerfully and affectionately voted to confirm Kerry as Secretary of State illustrated that they knew there was nothing actually bad about the man, that life exists for them in two completely separable zones, the political in which no holds are barred, and the real world in which you may still wish to sit down to breakfast with the person you maligned and destroyed last week. One of the great disturbances of democracy is that it is less and less possible to get any work done when any word, any action is likely to be spotlighted, magnified, twisted, and screamed about by the other side.

So my knee jerk reaction when the issue of Clinton’s emails took front and center was that she was being Swiftboated. That’s all you could come up with? Emails? But I can’t help worrying that there was a carelessness based on arrogance, that she did things she knew better than to do, because in her heart she believes that, being Hillary Clinton, she is not subject to the same rules as ordinary people.

China

Pay careful attention, because I am about to tell you everything you need to know about China, in just a few words. There is not a shade of moral or political difference between China and Iran: both are dangerous, amoral autocracies which imprison dissenters, and which are trying to exert maximal influence in the world. The reason we like China and hate Iran is that China wants to do business with us, and Iran would be happier if we did not exist.

Unlike Iran, China maintains a stock market in which we can make money, one that is so tied to ours that ours fell recently when there was a decline in China’s. Everybody knows that China’s is not truly a free market, but is full of fraudulence and manipulated by the government. But, despite official Narratives, there is not a hair of difference between China’s markets and ours, which is also full of fraud and subject to all kinds of manipulation.

In the end, the criteria we apply to determining whether a nation is an ally or foe is not, is it a democracy? Are civil liberties observed? Is free speech protected? Is its foreign policy more compassionate than ambitious? It is rather, can our billionaires make money there?

A streaming fail

Is it just me, or do you also notice that every computer you own is glacially slow, and that all web sites and applications are buggy? I’ve said this here over and over, but circa 1984, I remember computers which had two floppy drives and no hard drive as blindingly fast, simple, stream-lined and efficient, with relatively mature word processing and spread sheet applications which would still pass muster today. The decline in quality of design and of efficiency in the intervening time boggles the imagination.

I thought for a while it was my fault, because I was working mainly on ten year old desktop computers. Then I thought it was my fault because I bought some cheap new-fangled devices, netbooks and tablets, which seemed overwhelmed by the sheer amount of incoming data every time I hit a website. I imagined that people who bought huge computers were having a better experience, that any machine on which you could play World of Warcraft or edit a movie probably provided tolerable performance. But I recently bought a new Toshiba Satellite laptop, and things were just as awful. So I think it is the network and the infrastructure, not me.

Every time you hit a web site, there is tremendous overhead, a lot of activity going on you never asked for, and which is slowing down your access. You can watch it at the bottom of your screen: your browser is hitting a variety of additional sites, and launching apps, which exist for the purpose of monitoring you, quantifying you as a marketer’s object, and serving you ads you do not want. Even when you are merely trying to work locally in your word processing software, simple functions like saving a file or cutting and pasting are slowed down by your computer talking mysteriously to the network about things you don’t care about. When my desktops freeze, which they do once a week or so, and I perform a restart, the system shuts down a bunch of applications I never launched, but when I look them up they belong to Microsoft, not strangers.

Last week, I tried to stream a television series from the Syfy channel web site. Unlike a movie streamed from Netflix, Syfy constantly interrupts the content with ads. It helpfully provides a timer, telling you your show will start again in 180 seconds, which seems like an eternity. There is no way to skip any ad content. Worst of all, each show I watched froze a few times. Sometimes when the ad ended, the screen was completely blank, and I had to restart and then fast forward the episode.

Even streaming a Netflix movie is a haphazard experience, depending on the quality of your Internet access, which may wax and wane if you are using a Wifi connection (which we all increasingly do). Only in the early years of television, before cable, did we accept the idea of a service with such vagaries. We are no longer in the early years of the Internet. I always compare the computer experience to the joy of using a toaster. On the same setting, the bread will come out the same degree of toasted every time. Every time. Have we gone crazy, to accept such a degradation of standards that you never know if you will be able to watch a one hour show without freezes, bufferings, restarts? What is really so complicated about the subject matter that a computer with Internet access can’t function as reliably as a toaster?

Kentucky County Clerk

Right wing Republicans seem more capable than anyone of glorifying stuff which is completely illogical and inexplicable. The lionization of the Kentucky county clerk who did not want to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples is a particularly egregious example. In what other context would you ever tolerate any employee redefining his job, like Bartleby the Scrivener, to exclude any task he did not care to do? A waitress can’t decide only to work the cash register, and never to talk to customers (or not to talk to customers over fifty or who wear bright colors). An executive of a Fortune 1000 firm can’t decide never to do business with Asian companies, and a military commander can’t refuse ever to lead a nighttime operation. The only solution you can actually explain in words would have been resignation in protest, like John Boehner. But the clerk campaigned for the right to keep her job without actually doing it, and Republicans supported her, and that didn’t make any sense.

The refugee crisis

One of the gravest symptoms of the failure of democracy has been a general turning away from cause and effect. Don’t identify causes, don’t talk about them, treat everything like an act of God. Millions of Americans are losing their homes to foreclosure? Its a freak of nature, like an earthquake or epidemic. Other humans did not cause it, through greed and fraud. This is particularly ironic in a world in which such freaks of nature, floods and droughts, famines and epidemics, increasingly have human causes.

The lack of perception, of analysis, even in newspapers of “record” like the New York Times, can be quite stunning and a profoundly bad harbinger for the future of democracy. The scaled down model, the very beginning of democracy, is the Athenian assembly where in theory, we talk about everything and decide what to do. How can we, American democracy, decide what to do if we can’t talk about causation?

A major reason we don’t talk about causes is because we have learned to evade responsibility in general, to slide away from things. Another major motive is that we don’t want to identify the people behind the curtain who may be acting, for fear we will confront our own powerlessness--or attract their attention. In either event, our existence, like the protagonist in the Kundera novel, is becoming unbearably light.

I wrote last month about the refugee emergency, which in a few decades may lead to half the population of earth shifting to try to cohabit with the other half. I want to add the following: our foreign policy of the last fifteen years has led directly to the emergency; Syrians wouldn’t be overwhelming Europe if we hadn’t invaded Iraq. The through-line seems direct and clear. You destabilize a region, opportunistic and fanatical insurgencies like ISIS rise up, a state of permanent war and murder ensues, and people in despair of ever living a normal life pick up and leave.

Yet the flood of refugees is being reported as one more freak of nature, as if it had no verifiable cause. The profound meaninglessness of our rhetoric is driving a profound meaninglessness of life, not vice versa.

Where is it all leading? An emergency this grave is a litmus test for all our true natures. The immorality of the Australian government which bribed the captain of a shipload of refugees to turn the ship around and go to Asia was rather stunning. There is a very grim Leonard Cohen song with the refrain: “I have seen the future, it is murder”. If we can’t solve the refugee crisis upstream, walls will not be the answer, but the old human solution, a new instantiation of the thing both archaeologists and so-called Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are always finding: anonymous bodies in pits.

Facebook

I barely use Facebook, which has its grotesque superficiality built into the architecture. As an invention, the “Like” button is one of the most fatuous ever. You announce your father has died, and some idiot clicks “Like”. My favorite anecdote is of a novelist whose book had a really catchy title. Within days after he put up a FB page, 600,000 people clicked “Like” without even realizing it was a novel, and he did not sell one additional copy.

A fire on the N train

The other day, the N train sat a long while at the Fifth Avenue station, and then passengers all began filing off in the calmest, most orderly way. There were no visible authority figures anywhere, cops or MTA employees. I was lost in thought and was sitting almost alone when someone ducked their head back in to the car to tell me the train was apparently on fire. I stepped out to the platform and saw smoke coming from the last car. People were walking calmly away from the smoke, towards the exits. In a world in which 800 people just died in a stampede in Mecca, the train fire illustrated that humans are mysterious, always better or worse than you might expect.

Afghanistan abuse

The most heartbreaking example of human Bloodymindedness and the hopelessness of attempting to be moral in certain human environments was the revelation that American troops have been forced by their commanders to stand by and tolerate the very audible rape of small children in the next room by their Afghan allies. It is also a case study of irreconcilable Narratives which shatter each other: you enlist thinking you will be protecting innocent villagers against Al Qaeda, but you end up supporting warlords against other warlords. It would be nice to roll time back to a point at which there was actually a Narrative which held water--but I doubt there ever was such a time.

Books

I was strangely cheered to discover that paper books are making a comeback. A major reason is that they are often cheaper than the electronic versions (there is a huge market in used paper books, and none in “used” ebooks). All of the nifty features of electronic books, the ability to search the text or look up the definition of a word, don’t really matter; they are mainly solutions without problems. I still think in the far future, paper works will be an anachronism, but am glad it isn’t happening so fast. I was also pleased to learn, in the same article, that I, who have become almost a computer and Internet Luddite, am actually a pioneer. I never bought any kind of an e-reader, but read quite long and complex books (Macaulay’s History of England in its multiple volumes and small print) on my cell phone. Now so is everyone else.