February 2012

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Stupid smart software

I prepared some components of the January Spectacle on someone else's Windows desktop, then emailed them to myself. When I saved them to my netbook, they had been transformed along the way in a disagreeable way that required a lot of fixing. Whereever I had inserted, in the HTML, a pathway to the pictures directory on the Spectacle server, a function, presumably on the foreign desktop, had substituted a pathway to some nonexistent local files, breaking my HTML coding. It took me half an hour to go through the files manually and fix them.

Since the advent of Windows, I have complained of having to wrestle the software to make it do what I want. The experience is rather like having a young person grab your arm and start dragging you across the street, when you had no intention to cross. Formatting in Microsoft Office files, autocorrect, bullets and numbering, are all examples of features which make instantaneous and usually wholly incorrect decisions about your intentions. By far the worst, since the advent of HTML in the '90's, has been the proclivity of Windows systems to make a lot of unwanted changes to HTML files as you transfer them from one computer to another. Compose a web file, look at it in a browser, then save it again, or email it from one system to another, and you are likely to find a lot of crap added to it you didn't need or want.

Obama's tactics

The President seems to be waking up, and taking advantage of some tactical opportunities, to exploit Congress' low approval ratings and to consolidate his own position going into the 2012 elections, making me mildly optimistic he may be re-elected (though whether he will actually do anything if he serves a second term will be an open question). The recess appointments of people to the NLRB and to run the new financial consumer agency were assertive and elegant actions, leaving the Republicans fuming that work is getting done when they intended gridlock.

Mitt Romney

Romney likely destroyed more jobs than he created at private equity firm Bain, which downsized some of the companies it bought to maximize its own returns. His "job-creating" mythos also seeks to claim the expansion of certain other Bain companies in the decade since his departure. I fault Romney for his dishonesty and the amorality which, in pursuit of power, lets him endorse positions one would hope would be personally repugnant to him (or does he suffer silently?). But, when the smoke and rhetoric clears away, he can be seen as a socially moderate, fiscally conservative Democrat, who wisely introduced a health care reform in Massachussetts few other would have dared. Certainly he is busy repudiating it, claiming it wasn't what it looked like, but I prefer to see in it the good Romney, the one that all his attempts to ingratiate the far right may not be able to extirpate.

Its mordantly funny to see other Republicans beating Romney up for "predatory capitalism". According to the Times for January 11, the private equity industry, which has its own lobbying group (dues one million a year), isn't enjoying the spectacle of their Republican friends throwing them under the bus, either.


How delightful to see the Republicans beating the crap out of one another with the Super-PAC dollars set free by the Dred Scott, I mean the Citizens United decision. Legislators bludgeoned with lies by their own kind may feel differently about campaign finance reform. There is a particular thrill in watching Newt Gingrich maimed by the monster he invented.

Ron Paul

A thorough-going Libertarian should support abortion and gay rights, no? No: Ron Paul, himself an ob-gyn, escapes from the burden of assimilating the rights of women to anyone else's, by presenting the fetus as a person with its own rights (which supersede those of its host, apparently). While liberal gays are not as angry at, or scared of, Paul as they are of Rick Santorum, his track record on their status has been appalling as well, though it seems largely confined to personal prejudice and some ridiculous statements in his newsletters (he did vote for the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell"). The thing which more than any other factor, renders Paul toxic is the newsletter rhetoric from the 1990s, when he was out of office. It is bigoted, violent, un-Libertarian, crazy, paranoid and stupid. He continues, while disclaiming his newsletters, to cater to the crazy, violent wing of the party, the white supremacists and conspiracy theorists. His second and third place status in primaries illustrates how radical much of his party is.

Abortion thought experiments

Here are two thought experiments I did not conceive in time for last month's article on abortion.

1. Citrus vampires. The human race throws off a mutation of beautiful, innocent-looking vampires who clamp themselves, for nine months, to--wait for it--the necks of men who have eaten citrus fruit. In a debate about whether it is humane, moral and even legal to remove these vampires from our necks (which inevitably kills them) the argument is made, contra removal, that anyone careless enough to eat citrus fruit must bear the consequences.

2. Beautiful intruders. During a depression, a camp of really good-looking, large eyed, curly haired young homeless people appears in some public woods near our farms. When we come home and find that some of these vagrants, starving, have wandered onto our property, should we be obligated to feed them and sustain them, not just for a night but for years to come, or are we within our rights, as cruel and merciless as it seems, to escort them off the property, though it may mean their deaths?

Working these out has given me additional insights into what I like to call the meta-data of the abortion dispute. The first insight is an easy one: No man would ever entertain the argument he was obligated to let a vampire drink his blood for nine months, just because he ate an orange. The unacknowledged content, the unstated rules that proponents believe are mandated by God, self evident, and should be clear to everyone, are that eating citrus is sinful, and that anyone who does so deserves whatever happens; even behind that, is another rule, that being susceptible to vampire attack is itself the original sin: to drop the analogy, it is ultimately not even sex, but the status of being female, that leads the proponents to postulate an obligation of child-bearing.

I enjoy the first experiment more--its entertaining to talk about lemons and vampires--but learned more from the second. In American law and culture, we have two strong premises which join in this analogy: the sanctity of property, which gives us the right to repel intruders, even violently; and the rule that we are never required to volunteer to help anyone. I vividly remember the day that we learned in torts class that you can pass by someone lying face down in a mud puddle, without any duty to turn him over, no matter how easy and lacking any risk.

Thus, in the world of the fundamentalists, a woman has more rights in an acre of land she owns, than in her own body. Women's bodies appear to be regarded as a kind of public property, or even the private property of the man who fathered or married them. The belief that there should not be abortion even in cases of rape wipes away the negligence argument entirely, unless of course, we are talking about carelessness in being born female. In such a system, women are regarded as slaves, with the rights of the vampire or intruder (or really of the man who planted him there) paramount. It makes me wonder what unexpressed thoughts are in the minds of the women who are advocates against abortion, such as Michelle Bachmann. But perhaps many of them are so preoccupied with the innocent cuteness of the babies that they do not see they are arguing against their own physical independence and integrity.

Scott Walker

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin is experiencing a teaching moment: what happens when a governor beats up and demonizes a substantial portion of his state's electorate in pursuit of an ideological goal pleasant to the remainder? A recall election. Late at night, alone in his insomnia, is Governor Walker thinking: "Oops..."


While living, thinking, watching and writing the Spectacle since 1995, I have experienced what we playwrights call an "arc": I have been changed by my experiences, and various beliefs and assumptions of mine have in particular been blown away by the winds of experience. But one belief I had somehow retained, was that most politicians, like most people, believe what they are saying. Believe in something. That people like Scott Walker trip over their own beliefs. Watching people like Newt Gingrich round on Mitt Romney, and lambast him with streams of indignant rhetoric about his capitalism, worthy of Michael Moore, I am contemplating the spectacle of the candidate who believes nothing, who will adopt any view, say anything, which will unleash the PAC money and advance them a step towards power.

A death penalty decision

The Supreme Court handed down a surprisingly good decision in the case of the man on death row whose young lawyers had left their white shoe law firm. An appeals court's denial of his petition was returned addressee unknown and never appealed. Most death penalty jurisprudence in this country is rendered in a spirit of insensate cruelty, as is the administration of the penalty itself. Here the Court extended the time for appeal because the prisoner's attorneys had abandoned him, through no fault of his own. But--are you surprised--in dissent Justices Scalia and Thomas stood together, those two paragons of insensate cruelty, arguing that the majority's view would give every other death row prisoner abandoned by his counsel an out from death. Some day, I am going to do a study of the frequency with which Justice Scalia advances practical arguments as if they were moral and legal ones; as if the widespread need and correspondent expense of a solution to a constitutional problem was a reason not to recognize it. If thousands of death row prisoners a year are abandoned by their counsel, the expense of fixing it is neither a legal or moral argument.


I came belatedly to the whole SOPA controversy. I was very impressed by the activism of sites such as Wikipedia and Craigslist in making the issue urgent and clear for their users. And I agree: On reflection, SOPA represents a very dangerous trend, of allowing the wealthy (large, lucrative, content-oriented companies) to shut down the marginal ones without legal process. Since the advent of online communications, we have fought the analogy battle over and over: what rules of the offline world do we bring to electronic communications (email is the same as a paper letter for evidentiary purposes; a contract is valid whether signed on paper or electronically); and what (if any) unique new rules do we need to make for the online world?

If someone steals your copyighted work by publishing it in their paper magazine, you go to court, file a complaint and seek judgment against them, giving them a complete set of rights and procedures for airing their side of the story (if they have one). You don't have the right to shut the magazine down or prevent his advertisers from paying him on your own initiative, without the intervention of a judge. Yet this is exactly what SOPA creates in the online world: you can shut down an offending website by contacting its DNS server, or stop third parties from buying advertising. This fits squarely into an increasing American tredition of trusting the powerful to act without oversight, of which the most frightening example involves permitting the President, unreviewed by courts, to decide whom to send to Guantanamo. In the online world, we have seen self appointed anti-spam warriors decide to block your email because they unilaterally have decided your domain is dangerous (this has happened to me); and Congress intervened in the late 90's with CIPA, a bill which mandated libraries receiving federal funding to install censorware, private blacklisting software (some of which blocked this site at the time) against which there was no appeal. The Supreme Court, in one of the worst decisions ever, decided that the putative rights of people like me to have our content available in libraries just didn't matter. SOPA is the same: it fits in with these other examples as a way to allow the 1% to throw their weight around, without granting any protection whatever to the rest of us.


When I first heard of Bain, I assumed it was a leveraged buy out (LBO) operation, loading its acquisition targets up with debt to finance their own purchase and dismantling. Then I thought, "Careful, private equity could I suppose be more organic, creative and jobs-promoting, like venture capital." It now appears that Bain, in Mitt Romney's day, was more of an LBO operation. The ultimate irony is that Romney, and the rest of the Republican field, preach that the United States should be run more like a business; but capitalism, as exemplified by Romney, is all about borrowing to the hilt when money is cheap.

Arrest record

I found out that my own disorderly conduct case resulting from the OWS eviction may take months to resolve. I had vowed to be prudent and not write more about it until it is over, but I doubt I will be able to wait. I went into court for the first appearance a couple of weeks ago, and proudly declined the state's offer of an ACD--an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. I go back for the next appearance in March. My volunteer attorney, as it happens, is someone I had heard speak at an OWS General Assembly and at the first meeting I attended for the arrested, and I have tremendous confidence in his heart and knowledge. I have four new Facebook friends I met in the holding cell at Police Plaza; so my social media friends now break out into the following basic categories: theater, document review, jail.

Battle of the billionaires

The way in which Citizens United has promoted the destruction of American democracy is succinctly expressed in a sentence in the Times for January 24:

The wealth of a single couple has now leveled the playing field in two critical primary states for Mr. Gingrich, a candidate who ended September more than $1 million in debt, finished out of the running in Iowa and New Hampshire, and, unlike Mr. Romney, has yet to attract the broad network of hard-money donors and bundlers that traditionally propel presidential campaigns.

When an election can be purchased by a single billionaire, or by the highest billionaire bidder, government of, by and for the people cannot persist.


Afghan troops are killing their Nato allies in record numbers. That's all I have to say about that.

Middle class depradations

I am still stunned by the fact that the people who are so wilfully destroying the middle class, whose handiwork these last thirty years has now become dreadfully evident, still claim to be our champions. How come we are reeling? Was it an act of God? Did big government steal everything? No, it was your mortgage backed securities, your collateralized debt obligations, your repeal of Glass Steagal, your destruction of unions, and the beat goes on. And the already too small and fearful government which did not protect us.


I had my own close encounter with NYPD in November: an hour and a half in handcuffs, a night in a cell, the cop who broke my glasses, another who called me a piece of shit and the other two who apologized for everyone else's behavior. Captain Bologna, the guy who pepper-sprayed four peaceful women, was docked some vacation and will experience no other consequences. Now comes the revelation that NYPD (which lyimgly denied it) showed an absurdly racist anti-Moslem training film to more than a thousand officers. It included a picture of an Islamic flag flying over the White House. Worse, it turns out to have been financed by the Adelsons, the same people pumping millions of dollars into Newt Gingrich's campaign, and the foundation which made and distributed it shares space with another which promotes the most extremist right wing Israeli politics. So we have a seamless braid: demonize the Arabs in America, in support of the proposition that the Israelis need never make peace or tolerate the creation of a Palestinian state. The NYPD, in accepting the gift of the film and showing it to so many officers in training, has revealed itself to be just what I suspected: a tool of a political billionaire class, when they are supposed to be protecting the interests of all of the law abiding people of New York. The NYPD already has been caught infiltrating mosques, conducting entrapment operations and generally demonizing New York's overwhelmingly peaceful Moslem community, making the Adelsons, I am sure, vey happy.


OWS is still out there and strong, frequently mentioned in the most surprising and satisfying places (for example, an article on the Davos meeting of capitalists this week), but rarely reported on in detail. Given the amount of OWS activity in New York alone, and the perceived cultural significance, you would think the Times would run several articles a week on OWS initiatives, discussions and reactions. OWS itself is fairly inconsistent in reporting outcomes (new actions are announced with fanfare, but there are rarely any releases about denouements). Is OWS still occupying the foreclosed house in Brooklyn? What happened to the hunger strike some demonstrators initiated in another New York City park? We constantly see announcements of "re-occupations" of Zuccotti, of space at Trinity Church, etc. but never hear what came of it. I would love to see a weekly wrap up of occupations around the country; I have no idea of the latest tally of cities where there are still encampments versus those in which evictions have occurred.

OWS performed an action yesterday which I heartily support: it infiltrated, by its own account, a hundred people into a Brooklyn courthouse auction of foreclosed properties, and disrupted it by bursting into song. Thirty five demonstrators were arrested. An OWS "realty agency" also distributed leaflets showing foreclosed houses with an unexpected amenity: the OWS protestors you will acquire if you buy them. I had wondered since 2008 why people were meekly allowing themselves to be evicted, and were so rarely standing up to fight what I see as essentially a billionaire's tax on the rest of us: "Not satisfied with the unimaginable riches we already possess, in pursuit of more, we require your houses."

Bomb Iran?

Israel is conducting a weird political exercise, which seems to be equal parts craftiness and self-delusion: talking up the attack it plans to make on Iranian nuclear sites. If Israel has no intention of acting, the blather seems a bit silly, like the trash talking on a city basketball court during a pick-up game. If Israel really does intend to attack Iran, the procedure of talking about it, endlessly, before doing it seems uniquely self-defeating. We didn't talk about the raid on Bin Laden, or the Normandy invasion; we just carried them out.

Substantively, much of the shit being said about the consequences of Israel bombing Iran seems weirdly unreal: Netanyahu remarked recently that much of the Iranian population would salute the attack. Does he really believe this nonsense? it is the same statement as "Occupy Wall Street would be thrilled by a 9/11 scale attack on the U.S.." What we know from the original 9/11 is that attacks re-unite even the protestors with the people they are fighting; I spend virtually all my time in a state of righteous indignation about the way my country is run, but after 9/11 I would have joined the CIA, the FBI or anyone who would have me. The extremist and apparently fantasist powers-that-be in Israel also claim to think that a fanatical, ideological and murderous element-- the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guard they control--will have little or no reaction to an attack.

This is highly reminiscent of the Bush administration announcements about the invasion of Iraq--the Iraqis would rise to support us, there would be no significant insurrection or opposition once the Baathists were gone, and then "Mission Accomplished", five thousand American deaths ago. The major difference: Iran has missiles which can reach Israel.

Can't make this shit up

Prayer to be removed by court order from the wall of a Rhode Island high school:

"Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win...."

State Representative Peter Palumbo of 16-year old Jessica Ahlquist, atheist, plaintiff in the lawsuit: She's "an evil little thing."

Fun fact: Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, was a proponent of tolerance, and wrote a famous book on the subject; the state was one of the first places in America where Jews could worship freely.

Chris Christie and gay marriage

New Jersey governor Christie, who wants to be president but not this time, has the trappings of a master politician, in a time where most of his peers have lost any nuance, any air of knowing how to play the game, and only know how to rant and threaten. Facing a rising tide of inclination to authorize gay marriage, he appointed an openly gay judge to the state's highest court--then announced that he favored, not legislation, but a referendum, on the issue. He even had a Newt Gingrich moment, in which he rambled about how beneficial referenda would have been in the 1960's south--the south!!--in lieu of violence. The core issue here is the suggestion, which no-one should ever regard with anything else than loathing, that a civil rights issue should be put to a popular vote. Another sidelight to this whole dispute: the degree to which it is now a part of the normal battle of the billionaires. There are enough gay people with money that politicians are beginning to make choices based on the concern that gay money will be deployed to defeat them. Its the American way.

Religion and medicine

The argument that the First Amendment entitles Catholic universities' health services to refuse to prescribe birth control is a crock. Belief is one thing, professional standards are another, and when belief shades over into action (or wilful inaction), it looks awfully like negligence or even malfeasance. Any wacky belief can become part of a sincere religion and be entitled to First Amendment protection, and that is as it should be. But a religion which decided that people with asthma are being scourged to rid them of the devil, would not be permitted to refuse to treat patients with albuterol. A church which wanted to lend money to its followers at 1000% interest wouldn't be exempt from usury laws. There is no moral difference between these cases and Georgetown University refusing birth control pills to a lesbian student who needed them for treatment of an ovary problem (and who lost an ovary as a result of the denial).

Where Citizens United has brought us

Worth quoting almost without comment, from the New York Times for February 1:

Close to 60 corporations and wealthy individuals gave checks of $100,000 or more to a "super PAC" supporting Mitt Romney in the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses....underwriting a $17 million blitz of advertising that has swamped his Republican rivals in the early primary states.

The removal of limits on contributions to super-PAC's, and the ability of billionaires to donate anonymously to 501(c)(4)'s, have decisively turned elections into a battle of dollars rather than of people or ideas; billionaire vs. billionaire, the whales fighting for control. Is there any chance, cloistered in its courtroom far above the fray, that the Supreme Court, seeing only intellectual First Amendment considerations, was ignorant of the world it was creating? The answer is clearly no, that Justices Scalia and Thomas, who travel to Koch Brothers events, knew exactly the consequences of their actions. We are living in exactly the world they belong to and desire.