January 13, 2020
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

New Years'

Every year, I struggle for something Hopeful (or Hope Punkful, or at least Optimistic) to say in the years' end issue of the Spectacle --and usually fail. I am left with what I have vainly named Wallace's Wager-- a personal Rule to live as if I were an Optimist.

I will report that, for something like the twentieth or thirtieth or who knows how manyieth year, I celebrated New Years' at the Iconic Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett. For the fourth or fifth year, I wore a jeweled-skull-tequila ad T shirt I bought in the Astoria thrift shop. As midnight approached, I took off my hoodie to reveal the shirt, and rolled up my left sleeve to show off my turtle tattoo. For the second year, I drank an annual shot of the house tequila. Yes, I stopped drinking alcohol about five years ago, then experimented with the intriguing idea of drinking one shot a year. I will tell you, apropros of the joke that I heard when I was twelve about the very happy man who has sex once a year, there is little in life like the anticipation I feel for that annual drink in the days just before.

I am a creature of rituals.

Normalized swastikas

I am not too eggheaded to enjoy television. Vastly. My nominee for the best television show ever made is Breaking Bad. The Wire comes in second.

A lesser known drama which was satisfying, funny, and sometimes a little self-referential, was Justified, based on Elmore Leonard's stories and novels about U.S. marshall Raylan Givens. Set in Harlan County, Kentucky, the show included some highly interesting glimpses into a culture highly alien to me (I cannot of course say how accurate they were, just that they were consistent and beautifully written). I have always been a science fiction fan, and figured out decades ago that good science fiction makes the extraordinary ordinary. So do each of these dramas: each gives you a glimpse into a very strange world with its own Rules and its own forms of samurai nobility: street corner crack dealing in Washington; cooking meth in New Mexico; a criminal underworld of ruined coal miners in Harlan.

One thing that bothered me, though, were the swastikas visible on the shoulders of some highly sympathetic characters in Justified. Boyd Crowder, the show's appealing supervillain, Raylan's friend and sometimes nemesis, in the course of his five season arc, renounces white supremacy, but continues to sport the swastika. Within the four corners of the show, this makes naturalistic sense, but IRL, it helps to complete the normalization of a symbol of murder.

The villains on the last season of Breaking Bad also had swastika tattooes. On the last episode (Spoiler Alert), Walter White kills them all. Crowder, as we want him to, survives, incarcerated as a sort of harmless sociopath-uncle-raconteur. It was highly disturbing to me to experience a mixed message, that I would enjoy spending time with this character who unashamedly continued to sport a swastika. Its a choice I wish the show runner and designers had not made.

Dime store halo

All month long, I send myself texts suggesting entries for this Rags and Bones column. Sometimes, by the time I get to them, they have become cryptic. (Another entry this month was simply "Yeah".)

Included in my five hundred song playlist that I listen to when driving long distances, is T Rex's Bang a Gong, whose lyrics include what I understood as a reference to a "dime store halo". I must have texted this to myself with some specific idea of a meditation on it. I now find via a Google search that I misheard; the actual lyric is "hub cap diamond star halo". However, a search on "dime store halo" reveals a 2007 song by Julie Neumark, with the refrain: "I'm the Devil's child with a dimestore halo/ Wrapped around my soul".

I am old enough to remember dime stores like Kresge's. Undoubtedly at Halloween you could buy a cheap cardboard costume halo. In any event, certain phrases, certain assortments of words, have a mana-like power which far exceeds their components. "Dime store halo" is one of these.

Executive order re Jewish nationality

A few weeks ago, Trump issued an executive order which allowed federal authorities to treat purported instances of anti-Semitism as national origins discrimination (under university-related statutes which deal with national discrimination but not anti-Semitism). The problem is that the defenders of Israel--some actually funded by the Israeli state-- are making huge inroads here conflating political opposition to Israel with prejudice against Jews. As a Jewish person very opposed to Israeli actions and policies, I reject the chilling of First Amendment protected speech, and also being treated as a "nationality". I am an American. Anything which forcibly associates me with another country lessens that status. And what country does it glue me to? There is no other but Israel, which even as it slides to the fringe right, friend of crazy American evangelists, uninterested in my opinion or that of other secular Jews, still seeks to "claim" us in much the same way the Constitution claimed slaves: as a voiceless person bolstering Israeli power and status in the world. No thanks.

Ethical spectacle of the month

Every once in a while some insanity exceeds all others as the terrifying moral spectacle of the month. This issue's winner is the proposed Ohio law which would criminally sanction doctors who did not sek to implant an ectopic fetus into the womb (which is medically impossible today).

For insight into what I refer to in my 8,000 page Mad Manuscript as the "Bloodymindedness" of the "Lost Boys" (the Trump base), I recommend Thomas Frank, What's The Matter With Kansas? (New York: Metropolitan Books 2004) "[T]he backlash endures. It continues to dream its terrifying dreams of national decline, epic lawlessness and betrayal at the top regardless of what is actually going on in the world". p. 9 We are now a nation "of sturdy blue collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care". p. 10 "Kansas is ready to lead us singing into the apocalypse". p. 251

George Zimmerman

As a case study of singing into the apocalypse, I offer the lionization of George Zimmerman, who murdered his unarmed African American teenage neighbor Trayvon Martin, won acquittal from a Florida jury, and is now suing Trayvon's parents for libelling him. Zimmerman, who once retweeted a photograph of Trayvon's corpse, is an icon of the depravity of the Lost Boys.

The British election

I had the idea in 2016 that, if life was a television show, it "jumped the shark" with the election of Donald Trump. It seems highly improbable that a world wide retreat from democracy could occur simultaneously everywhere, in Brazil, India, Hungary, the United States--and Britain, the home of Milton, Locke, Hume and Mill.

The sense the writers aren't even trying was heightened by the last British election. The country seemed to be losing confidence in the Conservatives and Brexit. Boris Johnson was doing inept things, like firing members of his party, weakening it further. So of course, while Theresa May's party lost seats only a short while ago, Johnson's won by a landslide and has a mandate to do whatever he pleases. That sucks as a narrative transition.

Trump and birds

As another more minor example of singing into the apocalypse, Trump, campaigning against renewable power, likes to mention how many birds are killed by wind turbines. His administration then largely ended enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, allowing oil and coal companies (and everyone else) to kill as many birds as they pleased, so long as it was merely collateral damage.

Afterthought on abortion

As we go singing into the apocalypse of abortion rights, a Dump Book gave me some insights into the history of the Catholic Church's moralizing on abortion.

Every Friday and Saturday, the East Hampton dump has a "Home Exchange" area, a concrete slab away from the garbage where people leave, and others glean, household items--including entire libraries sometimes. I browse mainly for books (though also for an iconic blue typewriter and pogo stick and some dinosaurs which decorate my living room). Exemplary Dump Books are those which I would never have found in normal linear researches and which educate me on something I deem important. Uta Ranke-Heinemann's Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, a history of the Catholic Church's attitudes towards women and sexuality, is an Exemplary Dump Book.

I learned two things about abortion from Heinemann. One: Well into the Middle Ages, the Church tolerated abortion until the eightieth day.

Second: the later elevation of the fetus' "right" to live above that of the mother was expressly based on an already cruel Catholic framework. The mother was presumably already saved and eligible for heaven. Unbaptized fetuses were condemned to hell by Constantinian thought. An already saved woman was expected to give her life so that a fetus would not go to hell.

The spectacle of twenty-first century legislation being based on this sociopathic framework is astonishing.

Rave frame

As an insomniac who probably suffers from (never diagnosed) sleep apnea, I have a lot of hypnagogic and hypnopompic moments (words I only learned this year). The other day, I woke up thinking "rave frame". A life style? Type of party? A musical sub-genre? A Google search turned up (among other results) "glow in the dark goggles" on Etsy: "Our UV glow diffraction rave goggles are impressive anytime - cool white frames and neon lenses wow during the day and glow in blacklights at night".