April 2014
This issue's contents Current issue Index Search

Rags and Bones

By Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Flight 370

OK, bandwith is everywhere, and any device of any sort on the planet, instead of storing data in isolation, can transmit it into the cloud. Including airplane black boxes. But no, lets not build in that very simple and logical capacity, because its more fun to search for them at the bottom of three miles of ocean, especially after the batteries die and the pinger stops...

Hobby Lobby

It takes a confused time, oligarchical domination and rampant hypocrisy to give us the Hobby Lobby case; even if the Court does the right thing 5-4 the fact that such a dishonest narrative got as far as oral argument is highly disturbing. There is no way, pace the Christian fundamentalists, judicially to distinguish among religions, and the courts, right up to the Supremes, badly want to avoid case by case determinations as to which religions are "sincere" or "valid" and which are not. The very same illogic which would allow you to recognize a right on the part of Hobby Lobby not to pay for contraception would demand that you allow Christian Science not to pay for transfusions or surgery, or tomorrow's Church of the Transcendent Lung to refuse albuterol, because, you know, God only inflicts asthma on the wicked. The Court, as it usually does, was balancing interests, without necessarily admitting who and what, and if it decides for Hobby Lobby will be deciding that the rights of billionaires trump those of working women. Yet the case will then have been decided as if the religious libertarian exists in a vacuum, as if his billions were not important, and as if his actions don't affect anyone else. As if.


We have slipped so far into oligarchy that the stuff which used to take place behind the curtains, now takes place in front. The disgusting spectacle of every Republican presidential hopeful making obeisance to casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson is a case very much in point. In the end, the difference between the corrupt Russian system and ours is that Putin beats up and terrifies billionaires and makes them obey him, but here we let them rule.

Adelson's simultaneous and self interested crusade against online gambling is a prime example of how the public/private distinction has been nearly completely erased. What's good for Adelson is apparently good for the country.

Rap and the First Amendment

In this month's lead article, I focus on how accused foreign terrorists like Abu Ghaith are being prosecuted solely for rhetoric which, if uttered in Times Square instead of Afghanistan, would clearly be First Amendment-protected. The continuing erosion of freedom of speech is similarly taking place on another front: people who upload explicit rap lyrics to Facebook and web sites are being prosecuted for threats, or for other crimes of which the fanciful lyrics are taken as evidence. Back in the 1990's, we were all fascinated by the First Amendment implications of a criminal case against a teenager, Jake Baker, who published an explicit sadomasochistic fantasy about a schoolmate on the web. He was acquitted because, though extremely horrifying, the story was not a true threat. All that is forgotten now, because, hey, rap is work in a different idiom, and by a different race.

Garbage on Everest

Fifteen years ago or so, I reviewed Into Thin Air, calling it a "kill and tell" book by a writer who personally participated in abandoning two of his teammates to freeze in the snow. I expressed astonishment at the extraordinary narcissism and amorality of mountain climbers, which earned me a few angry letters over the years, of the "there's no room for compassion at 15,000 feet" variety. In response, I usually point out that when miners or sewer workers are overcome by toxic gases, they rarely die alone, because several of their colleagues come down the shaft and try to retrieve them. Mountain climbers are a breed apart, leaving their own teammates as well as strangers to die in the snow. In truth, humans take morality everywhere, even into space, but apparently not to the peak of Everest. Recent reports about the amount of garbage strewn around the peak and trails seem to confirm the appalling selfishness of a large portion of that community.

Chris Christie

Nothing about Chris Christie should surprise me any more, but he hit a new low trashing Bridget Anne Kelly in his self-exonerating report. He seemed to be saying, "Don't pay attention to me! That woman had sex with someone! Now she's crying!" Having fired her, he now is degrading her, and its all completely irrelevant to the underlying issue of what he knew about the bridge closure.

More flight 370 thoughts

The families of the missing passengers were transformed into a brutal media spectacle. There was no sign of the services I saw after 9/11, the converted warehouse with psychologists, grief counselors, comfort dogs, and teddy bears. The families were kept in a public pressure cooker and cameras were shoved in their faces at all moments. An unforgettable image was a thuggish relative, a cigarette dangling from his lips, trying to punch and kick a man who had just given him bad news. Flight 370 was an ethical spectacle in so many ways.

There was also CNN's extremely dumb exclusive focus on the missing plane, literally dumb because there was no new news and all the talking heads could do was retail the same partial, and often incorrect information, for hour after hour, while indulging in extremely inane speculation.

National Geographic

The mini-scandal of the canceled National Geographic show about the hunt for German war dead and relics was also thought-provoking. For me the pervasive trope that hung in the air like smoke when it was over was the idea that there were executives at the cable channel who had no clue, until the public indignation began, that there was anything disturbing about footage of fortune hunters disrespectfully handling and displaying human skulls and remains.

The Dewey Ballantine associate

In the summer of 1977, after my second year of law school, I worked at Dewey Ballantine and found it an unbearably stuffy place, so I have watched the spectacle of its evaporation with a special interest. A recent postscript was the indictment of several Dewey partners who were thought to have engaged in desperate accounting frauds to raise money for the failing firm. A shocker which has caused some media and expert attention was the apparent sweeping up of a hapless junior associate in the same net, who had little knowledge or authority. He apparently was invited to come in by the Justice Department, thought he was cooperating with a civil inquiry, did not bring an attorney and then was indicted. One of the grand themes in our decaying society, and a push towards increasing despotism, is an epidemic of prosecutorial arrogance and gross disregard of individual rights and constitutional doctrine.

Morocco mule women

The Official Narrative of modern "democratic" capitalism is the rising tide lifting all boats, workers who own their homes and cars and send their children to college to become white collar. You can tell a good deal about the realities of a system by watching what takes place on the margins, which usually means in the Third World. An absolutely iconic image last week was the Moroccan mule women, mostly elderly, bowed double under 200 pound loads of consumer goods which they are ferrying on foot between Morocco and a Spanish economic zone.

Mozilla CEO

I was not bothered by the resignation of the Mozilla CEO who, it was revealed, had contributed to the Proposition 8 campaign. Opposition to gay marriage is almost universally based on prejudice against gay people, covered in layers of religious and social rhetoric, but it is still bigotry. When society settles down to an understanding of certain equities, people tapped to run large corporations are undertaking to respect those equities. This understanding about gay people is just now, at long last, crystallizing, and no-one bigoted against gay people should run Mozilla or any other large company, any more than anyone should who has taken a white supremacist or anti-Semitic stand.

Reprinted almost without comment

Since the 1960's, when I first began to read the newspaper intelligently, I have been fascinated and appalled by a certain kind of writing which acknowledges all the facts of oligarchy without drawing the obvious conclusion. These articles are usually about campaign finance or lobbying. The man at the center of the 1980's savings and loan scandal, Charles Keating, just died, and here is a prime example of such writing, from his Times obituary:

Mr. Keating hired Alan Greenspan, soon to be chairman of the Federal Reserve, who compiled a report saying Lincoln’s depositors faced “no foreseeable risk” and praising a “seasoned and expert” management. Mr. Keating soon called on five senators who had been recipients of his campaign largess — Alan Cranston of California, Donald W. Riegle Jr. of Michigan, John Glenn of Ohio and Dennis DeConcini and John McCain of Arizona — to pressure the bank board to relax its rules and kill its investigation.