November 2011

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Rags and Bones

bu Jonathan Wallace

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was an Amwerican original in a very rare way. The comparisons to Thomas Edison seem apt. The constant yet transformative creativity, his impact on personal computers, telephones, the music industry, animation, illustrate the power of looking at things without pre-conceptions and possibly transformed attention deficit disorder into a thing of beauty. In an era of predatory capitalism, he and Google alone still represent the old fashioned ethic of new products as gifts, inspiring anticipation and excitement. As result, he is one of the few people to make a billion dollars in this world solving problems and making people happy. Yes, he had that billionaire hardness--he bullied the music industry, already on the ropes from illegal downloading, into accepting his terms, but he saved the industry at the same time.

Compare Steve Jobs to Bill Gates. Microsoft has done absolutely nothing new since the 1990's; products are not gifts, but despised by many of the people forced to use them; the company's main enterprise has been endless complex variations on a fatally farkled OS, none of which have come close to solving (nor does the company seem to have any desire to solve) the severe architectural problems which have encouraged the worldwide dissemination of viruses and malware. Gates made it a major objective to crush and destroy people ("The OS isn't done til Lotus won't run") while Jobs was busy sketching the Imac, the Iphone, the Ipod, and the Ipad.

Jobs was not perfect. He performed no known acts of philanthropy, though there are rumors about secret contributions. Something else I take away: his billions of dollars could not buy him one more year of life on this planet. There is at least one respect in which poor people have the opportunity to be far more fortunate than the billionaires. But I am glad Steve Jobs was here: he made a net greatly positive contribution to the history, culture and technology of his times, and there are not many billionaires of whom I can say that.

The demonstrations

I have been asking for some years why people aren't angrier, why there are no demonstrations. Demos are what you do when nobody is listening, when your politicians are not representing you, when your vote feels meaningless, when you feel your nation, your leaders. treating you like a thing, not a person. When nothing else gives you hope, you can grab a piece of oaktag and a thin piece of wood, make yourself a sign, go to a public place and shout yourself blue in the face with hundreds or thousands of people who feel the same way. What is particularly hopeful about demonstrations: they are useful when communication has broken down but you believe the adversary is at least nominally in good faith, or at least averse to life-threatening violence. There has been only one peaceful anti-war demonstration in Beirut: Hezbollah came out shooting, and that was it.

Through peaceful demonstrations, the opponents of a system also maintain their own ethics, are faithful to their own principles and provide a basis for a new community of interests, a new peaceful polity, resulting from their transformation of the old one via their actions. I do not believe that violence is never indicated; Hitler would have shot Gandhi out of hand, as he himself said, and thousands more after him. But I do believe that when humans engage even in justified violence, something breaks within them, that cannot easily be repaired after: the world has never solved the problem of how killers become rulers, though it is all too familiar with the pressures and temptations which cause rulers to become killers.

The American Family Association

It has always fascinated me that anything so blandly named can be so hateful. Mitt Romney is making the requisite pilgrimage there, despite the fact that Bryan Fischer, the group's spokesman who is scheduled to speak right after him, has said that gay people should not serve in poublic office, Muslims should not be permitted in the military and Mormons are not entitled to First Amendment rights. I remember when the Christian Coalition summoned every Republican candidate to a meeting except for Arlen Specter, who was Jewish. Romney, a Mormon, by obeying the summons of a hateful group, is truly making a deal with the devil in the hope of gaining the world. It is the moral equivalent of a Jewish candidate seeking the endorsement of a neo-Nazi convocation, or a Democrat courting a Stalinist party (if there were one).

Later--It is rather delightful to hear the pastor of a fundamentalist Protestant sect call Mormonism a "cult". Protestantism itself is only about five hundred years old, and its more radical proponents believe that the End Days incoherently described in St. John are a literal truth and that some will rise up in the air wwhile the rest are plunged in a lake of fire. From a distance, there is not really a lot of distinction between that and the Angel Moroni, so it is rather like Scientology calling the Moonies a cult. Its also quite amusing that religious leaders believe that the only valid miracles are the ones performed by the original leaders of their own sect, and that nobody else's miracles can possibly be valid.

Sarah Palin

Palin has become so irrelevant, particularly since her ecological niche was seized by similar wing nut Michele Bachman, that her announcement she will not run for president appeared on page 22 of the Times and occupied only a few paragraphs. Suggestions for her future: a Glen Campbell greatest hits album; guest host on "What's My Line?"; a late night slot on QVC, selling tchotchkes made from the skin and fur of endangered Alaskan species.

Tea Party luminaries

Yes, its an easy shot, but the people the Tea Party elected to Congress have amazing single payer health insurance and liberal government pensions. Has a single one of them renounced these benefits, announcing that out of faithfulness to their beliefs and solidarity with the people they govern, they will substitute expensive and flawed private coverage (or operate without insurance, as they are trying to force forty million Americans to continue to do)? Or held a press conference announcing that in lieu of their government pension, they will attempt to fund a 401(k) plan and make investments in stocks and mutual funds as their sole hope for self sufficiency in old age? (Good luck with that.) Of course, criticizing them for not rejecting the plush benefits they are avid to take away from the rest of us is similar to asking why they don't all move to Somalia, the Tea Party paradise, where there is no government.


There has been a lot of fuss recently about Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge, and the Republicans who have signed it becoming restless about it. On the one hand, pledges are effective political theater. Blinded by hype, we are often unable to judge whether a politician has done well or ill, but there is usually no ambiguity about whether she has breached a pledge or not. Everyone remembers that the first President Bush lost his second term because he said "Read my lips--no new taxes" and then supported a tax bill. However, in a grown up world of nuance and compromise, pledges are inconvenient.

That got me thinking about whether there is any pledge I would support. First I thought of a pledge to be faithful in marriage, but politicians already make that when they stand up at their weddings and promise to foresake all others. Then they routinely break that promise, in droves. More seriously, I imagined all newly elected politicians, as they are being sworn in, promising to respect Americans. That would be a good way of tracking them afterwards, and the only promise they could make that wouldn't hamper them getting the job done.


I love the prefix meta- and almost all words of which it forms a part. "Expose the meta-data" was an early slogan of the Spectacle and the plays I write are often meta-theatrical. I learned a new word the other day: someone I know is studying "meta-cognition", learning about how we learn things. That reminded me I know a meta-joke, the one about the prisoners who have been locked up together so long that they number the jokes. Someone calls out "Forty-two!" and everyone laughs.

China, U.S., same thing

The Times for October 10 has an article describing how "state capitalism" in China, by keeping interest rates low, forces ordianry Chinese citizens to subsidize the banks with their savings. The banks then lend money to billionaires and wannabes, who are fueling a real estate bubble; while the wealth of citizens is declining in real terms, and they cannot afford to buy consumer goods, municipalities are seizing their houses and apartments for very modest compensation and using the land to build luxury apartments. Over-all, it sounds very similar to the situation of the American middle class, with the one distinction that in China, the state owns the banks, while in America, the bankers own the state.

Media coverage of the protests

Occupy Wall Street may turn into the most important new social movement in thirty or fifty years, and it certainly has lessons to offer about its leaderless strategy, use of the Internet, the way it gets the resources it needs, the passion it has inspired in the hearts of many New Yorkers, including some quite elderly ones. Yet the Times only coverage of the protests one day last week was a piece about how much the restaurants in the area hate the protestors coming in to use their bathrooms, and the free Metro paper this morning ran a piece on sex and drugs in Zuccotti park. One can certainly find similar coverage of the American recvolutionists--in Loyalist newspapers of the 1770's. TheTimes also ran Paul Krugman's understanding and sympathetic columns on the protests, and two fine articles in today's business section, about the "Occupy Wall Street" newspaper and the protest's use of the Web.

Later--There was another neg ative fluff piece in the local section of the Times about the way Wall Street area employees, including doormen and elevator repairmen, view the protestors. This kind of disrepecful "human interest" piece could never be written about black people or gay people (they are inconvenient, they attract police attention, we don't want them in our neighborhood). Strangely, the protest is getting much more respectful and intelligent attention inb the business section and Op Ed than on the news pages.

A fragmentary thought

The Sonderkommando--oops, I meant the Tea Party; that was quite a slip.

Mayor Bloomberg

I have always regarded him, and described him here, as unusually civilized for a billionaire, compared to, say, Silvio Berlusconi or Donald Trump. However, this appears to be more of a veneer, or even just a successful PR campaign, than I thought. The current trial of a man accused of stealing a million dollars from Bloomberg reveasls something more of his true nature: he paid a million in cash to a shady political operation that promised to perform, ballot security, which is a Republican code word for an operation designed to intimidate the poor into avoiding the polls. Also, some of his political positions are quite inconsistent with his cultivated image, such as opposing raising the minimum wage, or his criticism of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators as trying to rob New Yorkers of their jobs.

A really big lie

"If we allow the billionaires to take even more, you will have a good job again, get your house back and be able to afford health care."

The President

He seems about as hapless as any president since Carter, who went jogging in black socks and was attacked by a rabbit. The jobs bill strategy was basically a good one: present a bill that would be shot down by Republicans, whom he could then hold responsible. But the bill needed to be great political theater, almost succeed and then sink down groaning under the weight of mad, enthusiastic Republican gladiators. Instead, it failed immediately, with a whimper, opposed even by a few frightened Democrats. I would respect the President more if he stopped thinking so much about 2012 and became a happy warrior, went out in the field withj a huge jawbone and smote the Tea Party Republicans. Then the 99%--I thank Occupy Wall STreet for the phrase--might love him again, and even see to his re-election. Sometimes you get the things you want most when you stop desiring them so much.

Hedge fund magic

The hype about hedge funds is very interesting. Every broker, every designer of financial software, probably even the janitors at investment banks, all aspire to be a hedge fund manager someday; it is the peak of Wall Street aspiration. A hedge fund manager is a wizard, a Gandalf of the equity world. If you already have millions or billions of dollars, he will deign to accept some of your money and obtain returns for you unavailable to the rest of us mortals, who due to our insufficient resources, are condemned to smaller returns, or (since 2008) to lose money with storefront brokers and the retail operations of giants like Fidelity. The punchline--wait for it--is that many are called but few are chosen in the hedge fund world, and of the hundreds who persuade wealthy people to give them money to invest, the majority prove to have no aptitude for it whatever: they are not really Gandalf. So they compensate by running Ponzi schemes, like Bernie Madoff, or resort to insider trading, like Raj Rajnaputaram. The ones who remain nominally honest, after some months or years of success, tend to make a bad bet eventually in this ridiculously rapid and volatile market and to lose billions for their customers. The only difference between the schemers who cheat the poor and those who cheat the rich are that the former promise a 300% return while the latter, more sophisticated, promise 10%, both equally impossible in today's markets.


The Times has been harping on the fact that Wall Street types find the Liberty park protestors "unsophisticated", which apparently, in their specialized vocabulary, means "moral, and unversed in the mechanics of collateralized debt obligations." I am therefore proud to be an unsophisticated participant in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.

The Israeli prisoner release

I feel sorry for the family of Gilad Shalit, and I am glad they will get to hug their son again. But the price and the symbolism of the prisoner release are very disturbing. Scores of remorseless murdererers are being exchanged, some of whom will certainly seek to kill again, so that other people's children will die as a direct release of the deal releasing the Shalits' son. Prospective future killers receive the message that a life sentence may be only a few years, and Hamas hears loud and clear the importance of kidnapping another soldier as soon as possible, so the cycle can begin again. One senses the possible political agenda behind an act of humanitarianism: a slap in the face for Abbas via a deal with his rivals in Hamas; creating a a spectacle of Palestinians giving murderers a hero's welcome just as they are asking for statehood at the United Nations. Finally, the math is frightful: is the return of one Israeli really worth the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners? What other math does that suggest? Is one Israeli worth 1,000 Arabs?


How delightful to have confirmation that the picture of Putin, in scuba gear, emerging from the water with a 3000-year old amphora, was faked. I knew the moment I saw it; nobody finds an object like that on a casual dive in a shallow area which has been dived thousands of times before. But just imagine the vanity and mentality of a man who wanted to pose for that picture, and thought he could get away with it?

Mortgage backed securities

Citibank has just agreed to pay a couple hundred million dollar fine for selling its customers a really crappy mortgage backed security, then profiting by shorting it. The ultimate irony is that the people who will be compensated are the wealthy investors who bought the securities, and who can in most cases afford to take some kind of loss. The home-owners who were bought and sold like livestock, who were dehumanized to the extent that banks frequently don't know what mortgages they own, what the terms are, or who originated them, the poeple who actually have been forced from their houses in the aftermath, are receiving nothing. The whales fight, while the krill continue to be strained from the water, ingested and digested.

Republicans and evolution

Leading republican lights like Rick Perry, Michele Bachman and Sarah Palin deny the theory of evolution, refusing to believe that God would permit an eternal struggle for survival among His people and animals. In the next breath, wwith no sense of irony, they propose and defend the idea that the free markets should be a Darwinian struggle, with the losers sinking and dying, while the best acquire an increasing share of the world's wealth the way winning species deplete others of food and resources and cause their extinction. Republicans deny Darwin as science, but adore him as metaphor, in fact, as a model for social policy. When Herman Cain recently in a Republican debate characterized the unemployed as losers, or a questioner at another debate asked whether people who can't afford health care should just die, the audience returned thunderous applause.

Words for the Tea Party

Something I've been longing to say, and which I plan to make the subject of a lead essay one of these months soon: Do you think, when the chips are down, the billionaires you so avidly support and court, will protect you? Do you think beings so spoiled and made monstrous by vast wealth will recognize you for the services you performed, or have any natural inclination to save you? You are as much food and fodder for them as the rest of us, and when they vanish into their bunkers and safe rooms, all of the doors will click in your face. In the end, nobody will have your back except us, your fellows in the middle class you so desperately rejected and wanted to escape from; for, however much you aspire to be better or different, you are one of us, and we are you. A sign that delighted me at the demonstrations: "There is a 99% chance you should be here with us."


His apparent murder by Libyan rebels was a technical foul, but one its hard to feel bad about. He died chaotically in the midst of a moral vacuum he created and protected, at the hands of people whose brethren and friends he had summarily executed, and whose sisters he had raped, according to the latest accounts. Mussolini too was killed by his own countrymen, an act which never seems to be mentioned as a great crime in history texts, nor so far as I am aware, was ever prosecuted. Some men who believe they transcend law, who in fact warp laws as he did in obtaining the freedom of his employee the Lockerbie bomber, die lawlessly in the world they made. When I think of Khadafy, I am not drawn to imagine international tribunals, but instead to ask why the United States, as it did with him for a few years, so often makes accomodations with rapists and murderers.