December 2016
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

Castro and Trump

Castro was an autocrat. The fact he gave his brother the government, and the two of them haven't created any thriving institutions to succeed them when Raul is gone, are proofs. Poverty is intense, and Cuba is beginning to open its doors to tourism in a way which may lead to the kind of despotic oligarchy familiar in China or Russian kleptocracy. Cubans who have the opportunity to get out risk their lives on rafts to do so.

Yet Castro never became a billionaire like Putin, now reputedly the richest man on earth. Nor was he ever a mass murderer, like Pinochet and the other dictators we actually supported in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere. Our hatred of dictators has always been very selective, even under Eisenhower and Kennedy. Trump will finally detach this from any possible narrative or methodology, and will like the killers who like him, and hate those who hate him. That will not only be our foreign policy but a version will be our domestic policy as well.

Voting against themselves

Among the most poignant reading since the election has been the continuing interviews with sick people who are critically dependent on their Obamacare but who voted for Trump. Some of them did not believe he would repeal their coverage. One Trump voter interviewed actually works as a navigator helping people enroll in Obamacare, and she did not believe she would lose her job, either. Others apparently did not know what they had was Obamacare, as in Kentucky, where they were enrolled in a system called "Kynect" (but then shame if they thought they were voting to take other people's coverage away). in any event, these all seem proofs that a major segment of the electorate, large enough and strategically placed to win the electoral vote, is too desperately ignorant to function in a democracy. This has been going on for decades, but this is the election at which millions of people have wilfully handed complete control over their lives to a party that has also vowed to harm their Medicaid, Medicare and social security. Even if the Republicans don't accomplish everything on Paul Ryan's list, it seems ike something of an endgame. The Republicans finally got the electorate they have been cultivating, building, miseducating since the 1950's.

Secrecy and kitsch

All month long I send myself text messages on topics to cover in this column, and by the end of the month, some are pretty cryptic. This is one of them. Here's what I think I meant. I have been thinking a lot about how you conduct a democracy when a large number of the facts you need to know are kept secret from you. Through-out the '50's and '60's, if you believed the Official Narrative, we were fostering new democracies everywhere, while we were fact covertly supporting coups and even the murder of democratically elected presidents in Congo, Iran, Guatemala and Vietnam. On top of classic governmental secrecy classification and covert operations, we now have political covert action as well, through dark money and Citizens' United. TV ads claiming the Democrat you liked would harm your Medicare may be purchased by billionaires who themselves want to take your entitlements away. There is little information left available as to what anyone's actual agenda is; we really do live in a "post-truth" world, which means a world of lies. The product of this, which did not seem a necessary result but, now that it has happened, does not surprise me, is that the Narrative we are left with is really cheesy, pure kitsch, of which the stalest, silliest, most embarrassing example in the history of the world, aside perhaps from some Byzantine emperors whose names we have forgotten, is the Trump-Narrative, including bit parts in wrestling matches, steaks, Trump University, The Apprentice and the Presidency.

Create a creole

This was another cryptic text, but what I think I meant is that it would be a good idea now to develop a secret, colorful, nuanced protest-language so we can keep on, in the presence of the Man, talking rather freely about important things, without fear of being understood.

From the free speech manuscript I have been working on for years, from a section on creoles:

The Romany language has been accused of being a “thieves' cant” Isabel Fonseca, Bury Me Standing (New York: Vintage Books 1995) p. 13. When I edited Wikipedia, the article which was sabotaged the most with crude and ugly insults was that on the Gypsies. Vaclav Havel called the Gypsies “a litmus test not of democracy but of a civil society”. p. 15 More so than the Jews, they are the ultimate outsiders, liminal, rootless, aspiring neither to assimilation or a homeland. “You will never learn our language”, a Gypsy activist proudly told ethnologist Isabel Fonseca. “For every word you record in your little notebook, we have another one—a synonym, which we use and which you can never know”. p. 13 One of their proverbs is: “When you are given, eat, when you are beaten, run away!” p. 35 There is a legend “about the full moon's being dragged down to earth by the sheer intensity, weight and witchery of the Romany tongue”. p. 53 Some Gypsies enjoy fooling the solemn scholars who study them; in 1776, a gypsy told Jacob Bryant, an English scholar, that the Romany word for “father” was “ming”, which actually means “vagina”. p. 54

Rituals of shame

Immediately after the election, Trump announced that he had prevailed on the Carrier Corporation to keep some jobs in America it was planning to move to Mexico. Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower or even Richard Nixon would have done a victory lap with Carrier's president, presenting him as a hero for his cooperation. Trump stood up before his adorers at a rally and narrated his victory over Carrier:

I called Greg and I said, ‘It’s really important we have to do something because you have a lot of people leaving,’” Mr. Trump said Thursday, adding that he dismissed the CEO when Mr. Hayes responded that he had already built a new facility in Mexico. “Rent it. Sell it or knock it down. I don’t care.” Tedd Mann, "Carrier Will Receive $7 Million in Tax Breaks to Keep Jobs in Indiana" The Wall Street Journal December 2, 2016

This is identical to a Brooklyn schoolyard ritual I remember from my childhood: a bully who humiliated someone would then brag about it to the rest of us, narrating the specifics: "And then he said...and I said...."

This just confirms what we already knew, that the new Presidency will be built on rituals of humiliation as its cornerstone; visits to Trump Tower by Mitt Romney (that disconsolate restaurant photograph!) and Ted Cruz, in the hope of receiving jobs never forthcoming, were another variation.

Smells like Fascism

People deluding themselves or trying to make a deal with power can rationalize at warp speed, but yes, my goodness, rallies before adoring cheering throngs, nad professional wrestler-type vaunts that this or that thing is "not gonna happen", and foreign policy set or stock values driven down by colorful threats or boasts all confirm that Donald Trump is the Man on Horseback.

Nazis and Cuteness

The headline of an article on the PBS website says it all: "Nazi salutes ‘done in a spirit of irony and exuberance,’ alt-right leader says". (This is Richard Spencer explaining the chant he led at his post-election conference of “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!”. ( This is a thing, a new "Nazis are cuddly" meme, of which Milo Yiannopoulis is lead killer-teddy bear, with his justification of anti-Semitism as the exuberant antics of a "mischievous, trolly generation".

Comet Ping Pong

There is a moment at which the irrationality exceeds the ability of language to describe it and we are left speechless. The feverish raft of whisperers about Clinton-sponsored pedophilia at a DC pizzeria, resulting in a man taking a semi-automatic weapon there to free the nonexistent slave children, crosses that threshold. "There all the barrel-hoops are knit, / There all the serpent-tails are bit,/There all the gyres converge in one, /There all the planets drop in the Sun".

Of course the punch-line is that the white guy with a powerful mass-murder weapon was allowed to place it peacefully on the pavement and survived the encounter, by contrast to the myriads of black men who get shot in this country reaching for wallets.


For twenty years or so I have occasionally visited to source urban legends or to check on the truth or falsity of Internet memes. A few weeks ago, Facebook, struggling under its fake news problem, announced that it was hiring Snopes as a consultant. Then I saw a lurid article in a British tabloid, The Daily Mail, about some scandals underlying the founders' divorce and new sexual affiliations, drug use, and the like. What I believe we were witnessing was what I will now start calling the "lapidation" process, of using proxies, including trolls, hackers, Wikileaks and the press, to stone to death anyone standing in the way of power. An occasional stone may be a truth--the most lurid accusation hurled at Thomas Jefferson, that he was having sex with his slave Sally Hemings, proved to be true--but "everybody must get stoned". Truth in this environment of sharp, killing lies is merely accidental.

Putin everywhere

Vladimir Putin, reportedly now the richest man on earth, seems to have his tentacles on the left as well as the right, as Glenn Greenwald, whom I respected more than anybody, unflaggingly lays down covering fire that Putin's bad behaviors worldwide have not been proven, Julian Assange speaks of Russian openness, tolerance and diversity, Edward Snowden lives there, and everybody goes on RT propaganda television. This is a nightmare, and its getting worse.


In 1964, the Supreme Court decided New York Times v. Sullivan, which stands for the proposition that you can't sue the press into bankruptcy. In 2016, pernicious and very dangerous billionaire Peter Thiel, who has been spoken of for a Trumpian Supreme Court appointment (after all, he once practiced law for seven months), sued Gawker out of existence. Don't pay attention to what they say, but what they do.

Israel and the UN Resolution

In Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station, there is a lovely description of a moment at which Karl Marx's ancestors detached themselves from the rabbinical tradition and attached themselves to the Enlightenment. In the air I breathed growing up, and even the Sunday school I attended at Beth Elohim, a reform synagogue, I grew up imagining that we Jews were of the Enlightenment. The only Jewish names which meant anything to me, and they were poetry, were Spinoza, Mendelsohn, Einstein, Brandeis, Cardozo, all, in my mind, poets of diversity and tolerance.

Today, the unique concurrence of events and facts which have placed Israel off limits as a subject of criticism, which have made the least disagreement with Israeli government policy towards Palestinians into "anti-Semitism", and which have led Trump's new appointment as Israeli ambassador even to characterize people like me, critics of Israel, as "Nazis", are part of a headlong flight from Enlightenment values.

In forty years, a succession of Israeli governments have paid lip service to a two state solution, without showing the least desire of, or making the least progress, towards, accomplishing it; the saddest part is that a compliant, passive, exhausted Palestinian government rules the West Bank, an ally waiting for Israel to give it a state, but unable to exert any leverage to move things along. Now forces within Netanyahu's coalition are starting, with new boldness in the Trump era, to speak of a "one state solution", which means: "We will continue to rule over Palestinians for the rest of time". The settlements proliferate, as they always have, and the Enlightenment, already badly broken, dissolves right there.

Even though it was merely a symbolic gesture, I support President Obama and Secretary Kerry in their abstention on the critical UN resolution.