May 2015
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

American drone targets

In this bizarre, upside down world of endless war, we are using drones to kill a certain number of people purely for distasteful speech that would be completely First Amendment protected if uttered in Times Square. Since the Supreme Court ruled the Smith Act unconstitutional, it has been "black letter" law that calling for the overthrow of the United States government is protected speech. Some of the people we have been killing for their speech are American citizens. There is no practical or moral distinction between a drone operator firing a Hellfire missile at a man driving down a road in Yemen, and a CIA assassin shooting the same man in the head in a cafe in Paris. The two acts are indistinguishable from each other under international law, American law, any law that matters. Murder is one of those things that is not legitimated or changed simply because performed at a distance with high tech tools or toys. The result is a race to the moral bottom in which, eventually, our external behavior leaches across the boundaries to destroy our internal rule-sets and values. I mean that killing Americans in Yemen purely because we don't like what they say becomes an inducement to kill people in Times Square for the same reason.

One of the people recently killed in drone strikes whose only offense was violent rhetoric was Californian and Al Qaeda member Adam Gadahn. Read too much about him and you may start to feel your head is about to explode: he had at least one Jewish parent (original name Pearlman), and was therefore a real symbol of Al Qaeda's strange murderous tolerance. There is some dispute as to whether he was specifically targeted or was hit accidentally, but all news accounts seem to agree that his only role in Al Qaeda was to make videos. In one of them he said: “America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle, without a background check and, most likely, without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?” The first two sentences state an idea that I have frequently communicated in the Spectacle, and the last is something I might imaginably say ironically. All three read together can be construed as urging people to exercise their Second Amendment rights. In bizarre upside down endless war world, the identical speech uttered by A is sacred, but by B is a jailable or killing offense. Roy Rogers could wear an American flag shirt on television, but not Abbie Hoffman. During World War I, a Canadian man was imprisoned for quoting two lines from the Book of Isaiah at an anti-war demonstration. All logic ends down the rabbit hole, and free speech rule-sets become impossible.


In Marco Rubio's announcement that he was a candidate for President, some words flashed by so quickly as to be barely perceptible:

If we create a 21st century of higher education that provides working Americans the chance to require the skills they need, that no longer graduates students with mountains of debt and degrees that do not lead to jobs...


And that graduates more students from high school ready to work...

Say what? Did he really say that some people should renounce their aspirations and be content to work in blue collar jobs right out of high school? What jobs did he have in mind, given that he opposes unions and minimum wage?

Some colleges are scams: there has been a lot of news coverage recently of for-profit technical colleges which cost mega-bucks but don't really qualify you for the careers they promise. The solution to fraudulent educational enterprises is to prosecute and close them, and to look for ways to encourage productive higher education for the same aspirant population, not to channel the hopeful towards nonexistent factory jobs.

The invisible primary

It is becoming part of mainstream discourse to admit that individual billionaires are playing an outsized role in picking presidents and other elected officials since Citizens United set them free to play. An article by Elizabeth Drew in New York Review of Books reviewed the billionaires backing each of the announced Presidential candidates; you have to have at least one to be in the running. This is effect adds an invisible primary to the system: a handful of billionaires select the candidates the rest of us then get to vote for. The chances of electing a candidate who might then oppose what the billionaires want is close to nil. People like Sheldon Adelson you would not trust to babysit your child are now, in effect, running the country. This is intolerable, a splintering of the gift the Framers gave us with so much thought and work, not defensible by any honest form of words, not even by the Cato Institute.

A Victim's Photo

On MSNBC, I saw the attorney for one of the drearily numerous cops who shot an unarmed black man defending his release of a photo the victim had posted on Facebook, in which he showed two middle fingers to the camera and had a sullen expression. The lawyer adroitly did a verbal dance, saying exactly nothing, but the subtext was clear: thuggish appearance and behavior, and especially bragging about it by posting Facebook photos, is now a justification defense to murder. I call this the "He Had It Coming" defense. I am sure the NRA was grateful, as it benefits whenever we clarify what people it is OK to shoot. As an additional mind-bending feature of this ethical spectacle, the extended fingers were electronically obscured, as if a middle finger has now actually become an organ which can't be shown on television.

Brooklyn subway slaying

A retired corrections officer drew his gun and followed a young man who had punched him on the subway up the stairs in the Borough Hall subway station. He reinitiated the fight, then shot the young man, and is facing no charges. It is hard to imagine any rationale for this other than "he had it coming": the Southern nonsense of "stand your ground" seems to be invading New York City. Will we restore the code duello and idolize the survivors?

Actors' Equity

This is a personal peeve of mine, but here goes: in a Los Angeles struggle, Actors' Equity is facing down some vibrant, small local theaters which do not pay actors, trying to require them to pay scale. I risk sounding like a hypocrite, because I am enraged by huge media corporations exploiting unpaid interns, or large Spanish companies which have stopped issuing paychecks and whose employees work for free because they think their chances of getting paid again on this job exceed their chances of ever getting another one. Why am I in favor of not paying actors? If you look at the three situations from the angle of inequality, in two cases you have huge companies making megabucks and not sharing. In the third, you have a field in which no-one is making any money, and people are working for love and experience. That ought to be tolerable; most of the actors involved would like it to continue, and those who don't can hold out for paying gigs.

Kent State

May 4th was the 35th anniversary of the Kent State shootings. I didn't see a mention anywhere.

Pamela Geller

With her Texas exhibition of cartoons of Muhammed, Geller was trying to get people killed. The odds that only the shooters would die were very small. If they had succeeded in shooting a cop or some passersby,those people would have been senselessly murdered in furtherance of Geller's goals of promoting hatred and division and providing covering fire for the most extreme faction in Israeli politics. I would be personally very pissed off to be killed as a pawn in anyone's game, Al Qaeda's or Pamela Geller's or Israel's.

Refugees and the end game

In a dystopian near future, half or more of the population of earth will try to walk or ride to the home of the remainder, where there is food, water and work. What kind of effective walls will we build, or will we find ways to kill them all? The current spectacle of ships full of thousands of dying refugees being turned away from Asian ports is merely the first swallow of a deadly summer.

Lee Bollinger and the mattress

A Columbia student named Emma Sulkowicz has been carrying around a mattress on campus to protest the university's failure to punish a fellow student who raped her. She brought it to graduation, where president Lee Bollinger snubbed her rather than shake her hand. The ultimate irony is that Bollinger is a First Amendment scholar: he apparently adores freedom of speech at the five thousand foot level, but not so much when its in his face.

Death qualified

Massachusetts has no death penalty, but the feds do. In picking the jury which sentenced the Boston Marathon bomber to die, the prosecutors had to make a special effort to identify jurors who are "death qualified", rejecting anyone who philosophically opposed the death penalty. In so doing, the prosecution and judge ignored the actual cultural values of the state and denied the defendant the "jury of peers" envisioned in the Constitution.