May 2011
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

Mean People

The expensive Hampton Jitney, which I am often forced to take because the Long Island Railroad runs only a few times a day at inconvenient hours, is full of entitled passengers, one of whom once asked me to discontinue a conversation with a friend because it was too interesting and interfering with her ability to concentrate on her book. I had an experience last week that was even more significant, a really classic Jitney mini-drama. The last free New York Times went to the professorial type across the aisle, and he listened, blinking, as I jokingly complained about my bad free item karma, which has so often dictated that the last newspaper or Public Theatre ticket goes to the person in front of me. My neighbor read the paper, crumpling each section up as he finished it, and when the attendant came down the aisle with the garbage bag, triumphantly slam-dunked the newspaper into it. Message: I have read and completely consumed MY free newspaper, and fuck you. Had the shoe been on the other foot, I would have rushed through each section, in order to offer it to him, because if we don't build communities, as our fundamental human activity, what is the fucking point?

I assume he was a Republican. I am constantly reminded these days how grotesquely mean conservatives are. A Bush Republican majority voted to enable snowmobiles in Yosemite, not because anyone really cared, but as an exquisite finger to the people who really care about silence and clean air in national parks. Today, we have the spectacle of emboldened conservative state lawyers advising Governor Walker of Wisconsin to use live ammunition on pro-union protestors or fabricate violent threats to implicate and discredit them. I am constantly reminded of one of the loveliest, most profound movie moments ever: Jerry Maguire's mentor touching his heart and forehead and saying, "If this is empty, this doesn't matter."

One billion

It is being predicted that President Obama will raise one billion dollars to finance his re-election campaign. Once you've said that figure, there is nothing more to say: democracy has fled.

Words kill

We have an American tradition that you can safely say any kind of thing, protected by the First Amendment. But our safety from government intervention does not spare us the moral responsibility of understanding the consequences of words. A publicity-seeking jerk in Florida, who had been warned, went ahead and burned a Koran anyway, as a result of which a lot of lives just ended in Afghanistan.


I never imagined in my lifetime we would see the spectacle of a city dwindling in population as much as Detroit has. The idea of people living in abandoned neighborhoods, from which city services are being withdrawn, has a post-apocalyptic quality. A development which received less attention is that New York City has barely grown in a decade. In fact, the population of New York is approximately the same as it was when I was a child, fifty years ago. The reasons are related: the city is too expensive, too demanding, too difficult to live in. All of the young people I know live crammed into shared apartments. By the time they turn thirty, they still tend not to make enough money to get their own place; so they leave for somewhere they can.

Detroit was economically more depressed, and more violent than New York, which has always had Wall Street to buoy it (and to pay for more policing). But we are seeing a trend: cities are no longer such an attractive way for people to organize themselves; and are not as accessible and manageable as living spaces as they once were.


Someone scared me during the election by observing that the Republicans would likely impeach President Obama if they won a sufficient majority of both houses. I believe that the Clinton impeachment was performed for one crime only, that of GWAD (governing while a Democrat). I just read Michael Les Benedict's 1973 book, "The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson," in which I found the following, from a Republican senator who voted against his own party to acquit Johnson: "The office of President is one of the great coordinate branches of the government....Anything which conduces to weaken its hold upon the respect of the people, to break down the barriers which surround it, to make it the mere sport of temporary majorities, tends to the great injury of our government, and inflicts a wound upon constitutional liberty." I agree. Like the threatened shutdown of the government (see below), the Republicans are very careless of the collateral damage they inflict in proving their points and punishing their enemies.


The most emphatic thing one can say about the threatened shutdown of government by "pointy" Republicans (Wikipedia jargon for someone overly preoccupied with making a point, to the detriment of the collective good) is that soldiers in our armed forces will not receieve paychecks. It is rather stunning that the Republicans would go that far (let alone shutting national parks, causing people not to receive tax refunds and a thousand other examples). I am also starting to deduce a rule of repetitive foolhardiness based on ideology. It seemed to be operative when the President chose health care as his first major initiative, despiet the Clinton era debacle; and now it seems to be a factor in the Republicans forcing a government shutdown also in disregard of the harm they did themselves by their similar Clinton-era actions. My paraphrase of and variation on Marx: All historical events repeat, first as tragedy, then as farce, then as ultra-farce, and so on ad infinitum.


It appears that Caucasians will be an actual minority in this country before too many more decades have passed. This is fine. America has constantly been repopulated by new immigrant groups; my family, and virtually everyone I knew growing up, is descended from people who came here from the Ukraine around 1918, and I have barely met anyone in my life whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower. America with a Latino majority does not offend me. The exercise is in passing on an American culture and commitment (to the Constitution, freedom of speech, justice and other values) to new groups, just as my own immigrant forebears received these when they got here. This will happen, or not, regardless of the nature and origins of the new arrivals; the Republicans, and to an extent the Democratic party also, has already failed to communicate much of these beliefs to their own Caucasian constituencies. Ironic, really, to expect more recent immigrants to remember things we are busy forgetting. Anyway, the rest (the assumption that Latin immigrants can't receive, embody and pass on American values) is barefaced bigotry.

Another insight

I am putting this in a separate section so it doesn't detract from the statement above, but the changing balance of the United States is a by-product of some forces that are having a profound and unexpected interaction in the world today: the declining fertility and increased longevity of highly educated and financially comfortable populations. While the population of the world has doubled in my lifetime from three to six billion, the United States has only increased from 240 to 300 million. The impact includes the demographic crisis in all Western countries, as a smaller workforce supports a large retired population. The irony is that we badly need a young, enthusiastic and hardworking Latino immigrant population to pay the Social Security taxes that will support the baby boomers in their retirement.

Mortgage rescue

President Obama's good intentions, to force the industry to renegotiate underwater mortgages and keep people in their houses, has resulted in very little benefit. I blame everybody: the banking industry that saw only derivatives, not humans, and lost track of the actual homeowners along the way; the government, which, presented with an opportunity for a triumphant, highly visible success which would have required Roosevelt-style leadership, imposed a hapless bureaucracy instead.

The execution drug

A drug used as part of the three drug cocktail in executions has become all but unavailable; some states were reportedly (and desperately) buying bootleg supplies from garage businesses abroad. There are two ethical spectacles here. One is the civilized face we try to put on the barbaric practice of execution. Places like Texas are so thirsty for blood, I am always suprised they manage to refrain from simply hitting the convicted man in the head with a hammer, when drugs are not available. (Imagine the line of volunteers, including Texas politicians, if this was offered by someone in authority as a possibility). The other, more reassuring spectacle is that of companies and countries refusing to sell execution drugs to American states, placing morality over profit for once.

By the way, the moral bankruptcy and savagery of the lethal injection method is demonstrated by the fact that one of the three drugs serves only one purpose, to paralyze the victim. He can still suffer tremendously, but can't express his suffering. The only purpose of including this drug, which is itself tantamount to a form of torture (think of the worst nightmare of paralysis you ever had) is to lie to ourselves and the public about what is really happening.

The Times paywall

The New York Times has just vanished behind a paywall, which allows you to see 20 articles free per month and makes you pay for the rest. Though I sympathize with the Times' desire to make a profit in the newspaper business, that is a really bad decision. I am not saying that the universal expectation that Internet content will be free, is reasonable. However, as an active Wikipedia editor I am disinclined to cite articles which are not freely viewable. Though Wikipedia permits us to cite to matter behind paywalls, doing so contradicts the encyclopedic goals of having the sources easily available to our readers. By charging for older content, the Times is diminishing its own stature as "the newspaper of record". In my own future editing, I will always cite to an equally reliable free source before the Times. The paper could avoid this problem by charging only for current content and making all articles free after some period of time, perhaps a month.

Recognition of Palestine

I am sympathetic to the West Bank initiative to obtain international recognition of Palestine as a nation. Yes, this would have been better handled in a definitive negotiation with Israel, but the Israelis (increasingly reckless and shielding themselves in ideological self deception) have no real intention of making peace. When there is no partner at the table, you do what you have to to protect yourself and advance your interests--and seeking international recognition is a very peaceful and respectable way to do that.

I think the Israelis are increasingly gambling their own country and lives--behaving arrogantly with the idea they are somehow necessary to the world. They may be emotionally needed by many of the world's Jews--we would all be horrified by an Israeli Gotterdammerung--but the argument broke down decades ago that Israel is somehow objectively or practically necessary to the survival of the Jews. To the contrary, its existence and behavior has gotten a lot of us killed. If we were holding a meeting today, in an alternative universe, tabula rasa, in which Israel did not exist, would we really collectively choose to create an armed Jewish encampment in the middle of ferociously hostile countries, on land inhabited for centuries largely by their compatriots? Forget the Bible and the rest of the subjective emotional and traditional stuff, and think realpolitik: the Alaskan Jewish nation amusingly proposed by Michael Chabon in his "Yiddish Policeman's Union" might have made more sense.

Oh, and by the way, the democratic uprisings in the Arab countries, so admirable from the point of view of nonviolent self determination, are not likely to redound to Israel's benefit. In the end, as Israel becomes ever more isolated, and says to the Western countries, "You NEED us here", at some point the West will ask, "Why?" I really don't know the answer to that question.

Later--Some notable Israelis have just signed a letter calling for the recognition of a Palestinian state. That is a beautiful thing.

Still later--Hamas and the PLO have signed a peace accord, further isolating the Israelis, who had the temerity to denounce it. But what have they offered the PLO which would have given them an incentive to refrain? They have managed to exasperate and lose the most moderate Palestinian government ever, the one most eager for peace. By the time the Israelis figure out that relations with Arab countries involve good faith negotiation, not bullying people, throwing your weight around, arguing Israeli exceptionalism and expecting the rest of the world to fall ibto line, it may be too late.

Negotiating with the Taliban

It is rather stunning that we are now supporting peace negotiations with the same people in Afghanistan who support the destruction of girls' schools and murder of their students, execution by stoning, suicide bombing, etc. Again, it is real-politik, looking for a way out of a war we can't win. The best case political scenario: declare victory, get out, don't think too much about what happens after.

Equality and danger

I was interested by the story oif the two cops accused of raping a drunken woman they helped into her apartment, and will have more to say after the jury verdict. For now, I am preoccupied by a side effect of gender equality: what I call "safe world" syndrome, the failure to recognize that in this distorted and fucked up world, there are sadly still streets which it is safe for Arnie to walk down but not Anne. People who let drunken male friends wander away are certainly exposing them to accidents and the consequences of impaired judgment; but people who let intoxicated women wander off are leaving them vulnerable to a class of risks unknown to men. Official legal and moral equality has to share brain-space with good radar and street smarts.

Republican rebellion against the budget deal

Since the Republicans have been masters of self discipline for decades, always marching in lockstep when the leadership demands, it was refreshing to see so many Congresscritters break away and fight the budget deal. Don't get me wrong; I'm glad it was made and the government didn't shut; I just like the turmoil in the party, partly on the "what goes around comes around" theory, and partly because it is refreshing from a purely democratic (small d) standpoint, to see our very regimented two party system possibly fragmenting into three or more.

Sheriff Arpaiao of Arizona

He seems like a throw-back to an earlier America, of bosses and influence and fear, or perhaps an imported Afghan warlord translated to an American setting. A perfect storm of power, ideology, grandstanding and lack of accountability to anyone.

The Republican Medicare "proposal"

A little recognized fact: Medicare is a "single payer" system for old people. All Bill Clinton needed to do in 1992, or President Obama in 2009, was drop the age limit stealthily, rather than instituting grand, complicated and possibly broken reforms of private plans. If every Democratic Congress in the last fifty years had dropped the Medicare elgibility age by five years, we might have a workable health insurance system in this country today.

Meanwhile, the Republican plan for Medicare involves the elimination of "single payer" and the substitution of vouchers covering premiums in private plans. This is how this would work:

Step one: First, eliminate Medicare without admitting you are doing so, and substitute (these are my numbers, don't know if anyone has proposed an actual dollar limit) a voucher for $1000 a month for a married couple. Any excess (my premium for my wife and myself will be almost $1300 as of June) is then paid by the individuals. Step two: Over time, hold the voucher amount steady, never increasing it as premiums go up; or decrease it the next time there is a budget crisis. Step three: After some years, when people have psychologically given up on Medicare because of the inadequacy of the vouchers, terminate them, successfully ending a Medicare entitlement.

In other words, "vouchers" are a code word for "gone".

No prosecutions in billionaire world

A very disturbing Times article this week compared the hundreds of prosecutions which took place after the 1980's savings and loan debacle with the complete lack of indictments resulting from the real estate bubble. In the intervening decades, I think we have made substantial steps towards the consolidation of an oligarchy, in which the very wealthy are above the law. One explanation for President Obama's passivity is that there are now people and forces he knows he cannot fight.

Questions for the Tea Party

I passed a small Tea Party demo on Montauk Highway and regret I didn't stop to ask the participants (many of whom were elderly) a question which really puzzles me: Do you have health insurance? How did you get it? Are you happy with it? For those Tea Party types who are over 65, I really want to know whether they use Medicare coverage, or have renounced it. I honestly don't know whether the average Tea Party proponent has great coverage and doesn't want to share it, or is without health insurance but doesn't want anyone to have it. I remember a mean-looking juror an insurance defense attorney described as "perfect" twenty years ago: "He's never had anything, and doesn't want anyone else to".

Apropos of what I believe is the deep confusion of most of the Tea Party rank and file. I have never run a picture in this column, but this one was irresistible (unknown provenance, almost certainly a joke but a good one):


Germ of a future article on its failure: In the ideologically pure world of naive libertarianism, we can all grow as rich as we are able to, without impinging on anyone else's rights or ability to live. In the real world, billionaires increasingly seem to be taking resources away from the "little people" (the classes "lower" than them) in pursuit of their own goals of self-fulfillment, resources, money and power: the disappearance of our net worth in "bubbles", rising energy and food prices, proposed cuts to Medicare and Social Security, attacks on unions, and the beat goes on. Can the libertarians construct a moral argument that we are all obligated to lie down, humbly, and be steam-rollered? if we have the same right as the billionaires do, to protect ourselves, isn't one of the ways we do that called "government"? Isn't another method by organizing ourselves in unions?


Rachel Maddow, who is smart and funny and rather brilliant, is the perfect voice of the left, the anti-Rush and Beck. A comment she made this week that resonates is that the Republican proposals to reduce the deficit don't involve cutting any costs, such as that of health care; instead, they simply want to push the existing costs away from government, onto those who can least afford them, the poor, elderly and sick.

Conservative big government

The Conservative claim that "the government which governs least, governs best" is a crock. Republicans adore big government, just in different fields than Democrats. Laws requiring women seeking abortion to undergo counseling, or to view sonograms of their fetuses, represent the most stunning kind of big government intervention in personal life, as does banning abortion entirely. Imagine required counseling sessions for anyone self-identifying as gay, or seeking to register as an independent.The law just vetoed by governor Brewer in Arizona, which would have required colleges and universities to permit concealed weapons on campus, would have been another highly disturbing big government intervention. If you have any remaining shred of belief that conservatives believe in small government or in personal rights, review the way they have delighted in using the unrepresented District of Columbia as a personal laboratory, intervening both in gun control and abortion related policy.

Safety and feminism

A female Texas deputy transferring a prisoner was overpowered, deprived of her gun and shot to death. There are several subtexts of this very distressing story. One is that women in dangerous professions face the same risks men do, and that it is as it should be. Another subtext, however, is the question of differences in strength and aggresiveness. There is still a large contingent which uses incidents like this as an argument that women shouldn't be cops or soldiers. In the '90's, when one of the first women Air Force pilots (since of course World War II, when women routinely flew planes in non-combat roles) crashed her jet and died, there were men arguing that women should not fly. The astonishing death toll of women soldiers in Iraq, which has only diminished recently, inspired almost no public discussion, and took us a great step forward towards complete acceptance of equal roles in dangerous work.

However, I am a little troubled (as I was in the discussion of the intoxicated woman above) by the idea of an illusion of safety, which grows from philosophical doctrines of complete equality which don't always map well to the real world. Since women statistically tend to be smaller and lighter than men--and since there is a macho perception they are vulnerable which may make it more likely for a woman cop or deputy alone, to be attacked--it seems to me we need an increased consciousness of risk which conflicts to an extent with equality. However, there is a gender neutral way to deal with this: have deputies and cops go into dangerous situations, including moving potentially violent prisoners, in pairs. I am not saying she should have had a male partner: an armed female partner could have done as much to protect her. There are certain situations in New York into which cops, male or female, never go alone.

Later--The list of dead in today's Times (April 22) includes two women of the 101st Airborne. There is no article, no explanation of who they were, what they were doing, what happened. Since the deployment of women soldiers to combat areas was a very notable step in the history of this country and of feminism, it seems to me we skipped a step in news coverage and public discussion.

Sentencing guidelines

These have been a national shame since the Reagan era, sending black people to prison for much longer stretches for dealing crack than they sent whites for dealing powdered cocaine in equivalent amounts, though they are the same drug. This has finally, after the destruction of many lives, been ameliorated, so that people will receive the same sentences; but it wasn't made retroactive, so that people who had the misfortune to be arrested a day before the law became effective are still subject to the old penalties. Some judges are, remarkably and commendably, treating the law as if it were retroactive, but may not be sustained on appeal. An appeals court overturning one such case: "We have sympathy for the two defendants here, who lost on a temporal roll of the cosmic dice..." (Times for April 19).

Contradictions of democracy

A majority of Americans are in favor of keeping Medicare as is and of capping federal debt. Historically, Americans have favored cutting taxes, while increasing spending. This is why we have a representative democracy, in which we are supposed to elect good people, then trust them; and why direct democracy is dangerous.

Congress' health insurance

Anyone else see the irony of House Republicans voting to end Medicare, while enjoying free single payer coverage provided by the government? Has any Republican in the House actually hewed to their ideals by renouncing the coverage?

Law firm cowardice

I am selfishly pleased that King and Spalding, an old and very respectable Atlanta law firm, withdrew from representing the Republicans in preserving the Defense of Marriage Act--happy for the chaos it brings, and the dawning Republican realization they are on the wrong side of history. (But do Republicans care about that?) On the other hand: shame on King and Spalding for cravenly deserting a client and a cause. In Soviet Russia, the defense attorney at some choreographed moment would turn to the judge, announce his client was guilty and an enemy of the people, and ask for the death penalty. We don't do that here. Everyone deserves a vigorous defense, and the firm, having signed up in the first place to defend the viewpoint, should not have bailed.

Title 9

That universities get to count men as women in satisfying Title IX's sports nondiscrimination requirements is darkly funny, a classic governmental clusterfuck.

Donald Trump

Is an idiot.