September 2017
This issue's contents Current issue Search

Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

The myth of repair

In an extraordinary season of disasters--multiple hurricanes devastating Texas, the Caribbean, and Puerto Rico, and now the California wildfires--I absurdly am thinking about the semiotics of the Star Trek plague episodes across multiple instantiations of the series. Forty minutes in, every lead and supporting actor was breaking out in horrible pustules and on the verge of death. Fifteen minutes later, an antidote had been found and everyone's skin, motor control and sanity was perfectly normal again. These iconic episodes perfectly embodied a corrollary of the Idea of Progress: that every bad thing can be contained and fixed, a "myth of repair". One of my earlier memories is of Hurricane Donna in 1960, when I was six. At the end of a time of American confidence and optimism, that would be badly shattered by the end of the decade, I believed as a child that any damage from natural disasters could be fixed as perfectly as the skin of the Star Trek characters would be later, not even showing any residual scars.

We seem to be entering the end times in which nothing is reparable any more--we claim not to have the money, and we certainly lack the love for our neighbor and the political will. This is what I read from Trump's evil maunderings about how expensive it all is, and how badly the Puerto Ricans conducted their own affairs before getting slammed by Hurricane Maria. I recommend two complementary books, Ramsay McMullen's Corruption and the Decline of Rome and Joseph Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies. McMullen zeroes in on the moment at the end of the Roman empire when emperors became perfectly incompetent because no one would tell them the truth: you tried to deploy Legion XXIX in France, only to discover that the centurions had all died or gone AWOL while the paymaster continued to draw and pocket their salaries. Tainter says that there comes a moment at which citizens ask what they are paying taxes for, when a decaying empire can't repair anything, and they declare independence or switch allegiance to local powers. After Trump's comments, why would Puerto Rico (or California, for that matter) stay in the United States?

Trump, towels, television

Since Trump is mostly id and has no super-ego, he has a flair for dramatic acts and an inability to foresee their subtext. One of his most entertaining symbolic moments involved throwing rolls of paper towels to Puerto Rican people who had taken refuge in a shelter from Hurricane Maria. He was completely unaware that throwing things to people sings out that you are superior to them; it bespoke profound inequality and contempt. Here is an excerpt about the "throwing trope" from my endless free speech Manuscript:

In an October 2017 visit to hurricane-harmed Puerto Rico, President Trump, “[p]erhaps drawing on his reality TV experience....launched several rolls of paper towels into a crowd of residents, some of whom caught the supplies, some who didn't”. “INTERNET: START YOUR MEME ENGINES”, one journalist tweeted. “At least now the people of Puerto Rico have some towels to help clean up the mess Trump has exacerbated”, said the Huffington Post.

I remember a 1980's or 1990's scandal in which an executive, distributing rental cars, threw the keys to employees and made them jump for them like trained seals. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a Christmas tree vendor distributes his unsold merchandise on Christmas Eve by throwing it at children, who can keep the tree only if they don't drop it. Such rites of throwing emphasize inequality and shame the recipients.

I would have personally approved, and been entertained, if just one person had responded by throwing towels back to the President. Throwing is also of course an ancient type of dispute-speech, and I have already mentioned many examples, such as throwing fruit at actors, a shoe at the President, a rose to put out the eye of a victorious soldier, etc. “Irish confetti” is defined in Merriam-Webster as “a rock or brick used as a missile”.


There is a chance that Vladimir Putin is not all that much smarter than Donald Trump; he too seems mostly id and with not much of a super-ego based intelligence for evaluating consequences.

Anthems and knees

There is a tremendous amount of fascinating subtext to be unpacked from the spectacle of NFL players "taking a knee" during the national anthem. Put aside all kneejerk reactions (ha), and imagine that your employer held a weekly ritual at which he read an offensive text which you were expected to listen to in silence, standing respectfully, hat off, hands folded. Wouldn't your nerves scream at the endless repetition across the years? Wouldn't a sensible outcome, as new generations of management succeeded the old, be discontinuance of the ritual? Management could, in a compromise solution, continue to hold the controversial beliefs privately, and read the texts aloud in its own living rooms. Why force employees to listen, and never protest, endlessly, in order to retain their jobs?

If this shocks you, try reading the lyrics of our National Anthem and a bit of its history. It is a violent poem written to celebrate one of our most sophistical and hypocritical wars, the War of 1812, during which (as no American now remembers) we invaded our peaceful neighbor, Canada. There is a reason why, in our elementary schools, we spend about five minutes on the war of 1812--its history is a litany of empty bragging and shame, the first in a series of senseless American wars that include Viet Nam and the invasion of Iraq for weapons of mass destruction that weren't there. Next, read the "Star Spangled Banner"'s full lyrics, which are rather bloodthirsty and boastful, in the spirit of that ridiculous war itself:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash'd out their foul footstep's pollution. 
Next, consider that the Framers left us the Constitution, not an anthem, and barely even agreed on a flag, which at the outset was a device to identify ships and forts, not an icon packed with messages. The Framers in fact likely would have been horrified by anthem and flag worship. The iconic flag has played a frequently despicable role in our history, witness World War I "flag kissing mobs".

The continuing epidemic of police shootings of unarmed black people has its roots in slavery, Jim Crow, lynch mobs and the blood bath that washed away Reconstruction. Racism in America did not end with the Civil Rights Act. Everything is not all right today; our society is not truly integrated despite the fact we elected a black President; the violence didn't end; the beaches in Aruba, where I vacationed a few months ago, are far more diverse than any beach in progressive New York in 2017. I sympathize with each NFL player who takes a knee while listening to the words "the land of the free, and the home of the brave". NFL players should not be put in the position of deciding whether to protest, because there is no reason to play the "Star Spangled Banner" at their games, which are private commercial events, not political rallies. Also, I can think of a hundred songs which would make a better anthem than the "Star Spangled Banner", chosen for jingoistic reasons and not expressive of the American values I share.


The Dreamers raise the issue of what makes an American. There are certainly multiple answers to this question; here is mine: shared values which include tolerance and compassion. Dreamers who have been here since childhood look and sound just like us, have our values, and are American in every important sense. The people who would kick them out of the country, on the other hand, lack tolerance and compassion, and in my view, are less American than those they are trying to deport. Certainly, no one on either side of the issue believes that a mere passport makes someone an American.

Cy Vance

For five years or so, I have developed a pro bono speciality, defending protesters arrested at demonstrations, so I have had a lot of experience with several New York district attorneys' offices. I somehow naively thought of Manhattan's Cy Vance as one of the more intellectual, detached and fair of a despotic lot (despite the insensate prosecution of hundreds of demonstrators during and since Occupy Wall Street, for doing nothing more than excercising their First Amendment rights). Vance is now staggering under a one-two punch in the last few weeks of press revelations that he ended two investigations of powerful men or their families, Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, in exchange for campaign contributions. It signals a certain amount of continuing denial on my part that I am shocked by classic American financial corruption in the justice system. Billionaire money warps everything.

Selling single articles

I have written about the entire falsity of the new Internet, of which every element seems to promote surveillance and manipulation. Here is a feature I just noticed for the first time. Print newspapers were evaluated financially by whole issues, as in "Why did Friday sell more than Tuesday?" Yes, a scream headline or a topless photo on Page Six might be the explanation, but there was still a philosophy that the daily paper itself was a discreet bundle of information and services. Today, almost no one hits the top page of The Daily Beast or Vice, or even the Times, to see what is offered; instead, we follow a link from a retweet or Facebook posting. Advertising rates are thus driven by how many articles go viral. Every article is therefore an independent economic enterprise, resulting in for example, an absurd amount of coverage on people who believe the earth is flat.

Of course/what the fuck department

As our world becomes increasingly absurd, we are seeing more developments which call at once for a fragmented, simultaneous response of "Of course they did!" and "What the fuck?" This month's winner is Mattel's now-canceled "Aristotle" toy, designed to sit in your infant's crib, and talk to her while spying on your consumer choices.

Another monthly winner is Facebook's friend recommendation feature. This already startled me some years ago by finding people I knew slightly years ago, but I wassn't threatened because I don't have much in the way of secrets. Now prostitutes are reporting that the software is recommending to their real identities, customers who only know them under their work names. There is no easy way to explain this, unless Facebook is buying cell phone proximity data (the prostitute's phone and the customer's were a few feet from each other for an hour), which Facebook denies.