February 2015
This issue's contents Current issue Index Search

Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Uncommon Law

From time to time in my law research I find cases that are so quaint or strange, so redolent of vanished values that I have decided to start featuring them here. The following is from an 1843 New York decision holding that a bowling alley is a criminal nuisance. "No one is so blind as not to see that such places, on their becoming known, bring together the most profligate mixtures; brawlers, drunkards, gamblers, blacklegs, pickpockets, and other petit thieves", TANNER v. TRUSTEES OF ALBION, 5 Hill 121 (1843).


The death of the prosecutor investigating the bombing of the Jewish center many years ago suggests a world of conspiracy, injustice and despair; the accusation that President Fernandez excused murder in exchange for a trade deal with Iran sounds plausible. If I remember correctly, Argentina, more of a refuge for all Europeans than some other Latin American countries, was one of the places Theodor Herzl considered building the Jewish state, and long had a strong population of Jewish gauchos whose grandparents had immigrated. On the other hand, it was also a refuge for prominent Nazis such as Eichmann and Dr. Mengele. Historical strands from the nineteenth century, World War II and the 1990's are still playing out in a land of opportunity, pragmatism, and bigotry, not so unlike our own.

The Greek election

My heart is of course with the Greek people for rejecting the austerity that would have choked the hope out of them for a generation or more; whatever the mistakes of the past, from a practical and moral standpoint, solutions which require entire nations to give up hope, to be humiliated, are Not a Good Idea. I will be watching with interest to see what happens next, and the extent to which the Germans in particular can meld economics with compassion.

Stays of Execution

We have recently had the disturbing ethical spectacle of the Supreme Court mustering enough votes to accept the appeal of a condemned prisoner, but not the extra vote needed to stay execution. Not long ago, this would have been granted as a courtesy. Of course, if the Court keeps this up, the Court could never hear an actual death row appeal, because every appellant would be killed by the state before the date of argument.


Isis is the extreme example of what I call "Dread Certainty", the conclusion that We Are The Good People,God is On Our Side, and therefore We Are Allowed to Lie to, Cheat, Steal From, Rape, and Murder the Bad People, all in service to God. Acts such as burning the Jordanian pilot to death couldn't be more effective if planned to unite the rest of the world, hype up what is essentially already and has been since 2001 a world war, and encourage more drone strikes, more collateral damage, more innocent people killed. Which then creates more rage and more membership for Isis. Its a downward spiral its awfully hard to pull out of.


It is part of the far right response to Al Qaeda and Isis to say, "No, WE are the good people, God loves US not you, and we are allowed to, etc". This is the impetus to characterize all Islam as bad, to claim a clash of civilizations--to bring Hofstadter's "paranoid style" to national politics. I fully understand President Obama's desire not to do that. It is a very sad and strange phenomenon that there is a strong--paranoid--faction in this country trying to whitewash the Crusades at this late date (in addition to violence against Muslims, let's conveniently forget that the Fourth Crusade stopped on its way to Jerusalem to sack Constantinople, a Christian city).


It was rather enjoyable to find out that over the counter supplements, only lightly regulated by the FDA, often don't contain the ingredient such as gingko biloba touted on their labels. The newspapers reporting this have completely failed to put it in context: this fraud is a by-product of capitalism, early and again later, whenever the balance between it and democracy is not properly struck. Even Hayek admitted (something Cato has forgotten) that there is subject matter which cannot be regulated by free markets and in which government is required.

A three person baby

I read in passing that there is an experiment going to combine the genes of three people in one child. This is another example of the technological determinism which dictates that whatever is possible, will happen. The same mentality which promotes plastic surgery will one day lead to designer children, and the world will not be better for it.

Sky selfies

Pilots are starting to crash because they are too busy taking photographs of themselves to fly. Don't know what else to say about that.

Wisconsin and Louisiana

These are the two red states which are in deep debt because they are reducing tax revenue without cutting spending deeply enough. I can tell you exactly what is happening: ideological legislatures fail in courage when it comes to fulfilling their programs; almost every know-nothing in the country has a favorite benefit that can't be cut ("Get your government hands off my Medicare!"). So they go sideways and borrow money instead. To really have the courage of the Koch Brothers' convictions, it would be necessary to return each state, and the entire country, to the Middle Ages, to a renewed world of barons and serfs.


Shame on John Boehner for inviting Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak to Congress, and the latter for accepting. Wide swaths of public opinion in Israel know what the majority party here does not, that its a cheesy, demagogue move, a stunt meant to influence Israeli electoral politics while interfering with the President's foreign policy.

Campus rape and the NRA

The month's most egregious ethical spectacle is the proposal that guns are the solution to campus rape. This is an opportunistic linkage by people who don't really give a damn; they are telling women that, as a real substitute for reform, prevention, prosecution, a change in campus values, "Just carry a gun". The advice isn't even practical, given that most campus rape is date rape.

Windows 8

The first operating system I ever used was CP/M, and when I switched to Microsoft products, Windows was still a year or two away. I learned fifteen or twenty commands I entered at the C: prompt and did everything I needed. Thirty years later, along comes Windows 8,embodying the same philosophy that outrages me on my Samsung Android phone: an OS or user interface is no longer a sleek, logical platform for getting work done, but a way to spy on you and sell you products, which can be massively clunky, ugly and slow as long as it carries out the goals of late capitalism.