May 2017
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace


This is old news already, as the Republican healthcare legislation seems to be dead. But the Republican use of the phrase "access to health care" is a fit subject for my obsessive interest in analyzing what words really mean. Under the Republican plan, the poor would have "access" to health care in the same sense that a homeless person has "access" to a Ferrari: if he had the money, he would be allowed to buy one, just as Donald Trump can. This is a variant on Anatole France's famous insight that "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread".


The fraternity hazing death of the intoxicated student who fell down and hit his head repeatedly, then was allowed to lose the "golden hour" of trauma care and many more lying unconscious on the floor by his fraternity mates, presents a vision of frightening sociopathy at the core of a future ruling elite. I have not solved the problem in my own thinking, and I am not sure anyone has, of how such terrifying pockets of apathy and cruelty are produced in the midst of middle class life, co-existing with exemplars of compassion and community. Human nature appears to me to be a terribly mixed bag.

I have an idea of a contributing factor, however. As a child growing up in New York City in the 1960's, I noticed that almost every week the Daily News ran a variation on the same headline. One week, "Subway Riders Take No Action While Passenger is Assaulted". The next week, "Brave Citizens Intervene to Save Stranger on Subway". I finally figured out that most humans probably exist on the cusp of courage and cowardice, waiting for someone else to lead. The same people who sat by and did nothing one week followed someone a bit braver and more decisive than themselves the next. In the 1990's, I lived a version of this story when I ran a small company for a few years which seemed to me to consist of particularly truthful and gossip free employees, while some affiliates were notorious for their tale-bearing and back-stabbing. I realized later that some of our people were equally able to function in either environment, and that to some extent the perceived culture of my company was a projection of my own values: people knew that if they came in to gossip about a co-worker I would not listen, while in other subsidiaries the executives encouraged the behavior.

No idea

For some years, I have sent myself text messages as notes for items to include in this column. At the end of a month, there are always a few which baffle me: what did I mean? This month's candidates are "Death of metaphor, British empire example" and "Chaotic child I told you so".


I was delighted, on a poetry site, to find a link at the bottom of each page: "Report a problem with this poem". "I found its use of metaphor particularly arid, and that imitation Yeatsian slant-rhyme scheme? Please."

Eloquent punches

It has become predictably a thing in Trump world that protesters--also journalists--are getting kicked and beaten with some regularity. In a special election this week in Montana, Republican Greg Gianforte won the day after senselessly assaulting reporter Ben Jacobs--buoyed in part by voters who thought that punching a reporter was splendid. In a month and year when I could point to a dozen other examples--including my own experience of being straight-armed by a cop at a May Day demonstration--I am particularly haunted by the video of men in suits charging in to a crowd of anti-Erdogan protesters outside the Turkish embassy in Washington and then repeatedly kicking prone humans while the Prime Minister himself watches impassively. The State Department at least issued a complaining press release but Donald Trump himself said nothing; he had met with the autocratic Erdogan just moments before.

In the American zone that formerly contained debate, dissent, discussion, the new sound is that of fists and feet smacking flesh.

Fox News goes supernova

I am fascinated by the spectacle of Fox News imploding. Not surprising in a Murdoch-owned entity, given the cruelty of the cell-phone hacking revelations in Britain, the entire culture was apparently based on bullying and sexual harassment. For anyone who has gotten most of her news from Fox, and there are many such Americans, think about the question of whether such dishonest and vile people are at the same time capable of discovering and revealing truth? But most viewers will never ask themselves the question. After the departure of Bill O'Reilly and the firing and death of Roger Ailes--the situation almost would support some modern composer writing an opera, maybe the guy who wrote "Jerry Springer"--Sean Hannity now is obsessively using a dead guy, Seth Rich, as a propaganda tool, promoting an exploded story about Rich having been murdered for leaking Democratic National Committee documents to Wikileaks. Fox (for the second or third time this year) has issued a press release rejecting a story being touted by one of its "on air personalities". This is a particularly noisy and powerful example of another disturbing recent trend, of inflicting renewed suffering on the parents of dead people; parents of murdered Newtown children are being told that they never had kids at all, but are actors who participated in a "false flag" operation. Note that one of the lead authors of this psychotic brutality is Alex Jones of Infowars, who, due to the election of Trump, now exists in a corner of the same ecosystem as Hannity.

A feature of Fox News' imitation of a rabid elephant is an attempt not to cover the actual news of corruption and scandal in the Trump administration; the Hannity hysteria is in part an attempt to maintain ratings while directing attention away from Trump's Russian connection.

Another person who comes out of this terribly is Julian Assange, who knows whether or not Seth Rich was his source. Assange offered a reward some months ago for information on Rich's killing, hinting without saying that Rich fed Wikileaks the DNC documents. If that is true, he should just end the confusion, and back Hannity, by saying so. If, as I believe, there is nothing to it at all--Assange is just helping Hannity lay down covering fire for Trump and, behind him, Putin--offering the reward was a deeply dishonest and shameful act, which sacrificed a family's attempt to find equilibrium to a mean, chaotic, democracy-destroying political goal.

The decline of trucking

Every once in a while, a story gets reported in passing, even as an aside, which is of the first importance. The Times featured a series of interviews with an ignored group, long distance truckers, in which one of the data points reported was that they earn about half of what they did in the 1970's. I remember an admirable friend of my brother's, who worked as a trucker for several years after graduating college, paying off his student loans before starting his career. Today, that would not work, because the loans would be ten times the amount, the pay half and no academic job waiting at the end of the tunnel. That is a heartbreaking and really important change in our world.

A signficant element of the truckers' story is the decline and destruction of unions in American life. Someone could write a 500 page anthropological-political-psychological book on this phenomenon. Without disregarding union selfishness and corruption, American billionaires, whom I regard as the biggest existential threat to democracy, have fought hard and successfully to make sure that only they can organize for their own interests, and that workers cannot. The propaganda element in this, which has resulted in workers in some places voting against unions, against a backdrop of ordinary Americans also voting against their own educations, health care, and mortgages, is a stunning feature of a case study of successful oligarchy and mind control.

Trump and Star Trek

Here is an idea which didn't quite fit in to this month's lead essay. There are two kinds of science fiction, the stories in which spaceships can go anywhere as easily as you can drive your car either to the mall or bank, and those in which the math and physics of orbits, fuel and velocity play a role (the astronauts on the doomed space shuttle Columbia could not have reached the International Space Station even if NASA had admitted to itself, and told them, that their heat shielding would not survive re-entry). While two science fiction movies seen back to back may include glittery or scarred space ships created by the same special effects company, Gravity and Passengers cared about physics while Interstellar and any entry in the now-interminable Star Wars and Star Trek series do not. It is a paradox that I am enough of a Star Trek fan to have watched every episode of every series until the last, particularly weak one, Enterprise, yet the laziness of the writing from the first 1960's series on always made me angry. Since every problem could in theory be solved with the transporter beam, the writers had to resort to the radiation particle of the week to explain unavailability of what was literally a deus ex machina: "There's too much zeta radiation! I can't get a lock on him!"

Donald Trump's world, like Star Trek's, is based on extraordinarily lazy writing, where instead of doing any actual work, you just make shit up. Every week, his tweets and speeches contain another example: the "failing" media, American "carnage", and the use of "fake news" to describe the reporting of facts he is not even denying, are all the moral equivalent of Star Trek's zeta particles.


In 1995, in the first issue of the Spectacle, I promised to pay attention to what words really mean. Today (as always in politics in my lifetime), we have two simultaneous phenomena, of trivial or irrelevant words being invested with unearned meaning, and heavily weighted words made light. Sometimes it can be the same word.

One example this week is "person of interest". Talking heads from law enforcement all agree that this is not a term they actually use in their work. It is also notoriously the name of a popular television series which recently ended. For newspeople to use it is therefore extraordinarily lazy and misleading, when they could instead use a living, shifting vocabulary, such as an individual being a "target" of or "witness" in an investigation. The repetitive use of "person of interest" implies that that is a Thing when it isn't a Thing.

Another strange example this week occurred in the reporting of candidate Greg Gianforte's assault on reporter Ben Jacobs. Gianforte reportedly knocked Jacobs down, then sat on him and punched him. The use of "body slam" in virtually every headline and article was strange and lazy. "Body slamming" is a wrestling move which most of us know to be phony and staged; the usage somehow limited the impact of the reporting on an incident in which someone actually hit and injured someone else.

The use of "collusion" in the reporting on the Trump administration's Russian connection is a fascinating example of undue heaviness and lightness invested in a single word. On the one hand, as some of the pundits never tire of pointing out, there is no crime of "collusion" any more than there is a legal status of being a "person of interest". On the other hand, this assertion is used in articles which in effect say let's move on, nothing more to see here. Yet, regardless of whether the crime of treason or espionage occurred, we have a right to know politically if our government is cooperating secretly with another which is not an ally. What makes this specially absurd and unreal is that during the campaign, Trump proudly colluded with Putin: "Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Clinton] e-mails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

The voices demanding "evidence" of something obvious therefore fall within a discreditable history of travesties of justice in despotisms through-out history. Dissidents are accused of beating themselves to death to embarrass the government. A government agent may have fired a gun point blank at a protester, but who is to say the individual did not die of a heart attack, or that a preemptive bullet did not fly in from somewhere else? "Where's your evidence?" has always been the theme song of the apologists for government violence.

The shame of a guaranteed income

This may sound at first blush like a strange admission from a leftist who has always supported a social safety net, but the idea of a "guaranteed basic income" suddenly turning up everywhere in the Zeitgeist is a poignant and fatal one. If you think about a "safety net", the implication is that it plays a momentary role, saving your life when you fall. People who plunge into real life safety nets are not left there the rest of their lives, but are retrieved within moments by emergency workers.

The "guaranteed basic income" proposed by technology billionaires and book-of-the-month pundits is something entirely different. To unpack it entirely, you need to think about two propositions which are rarely openly discussed by the people proposing the idea: 1. work is vanishing, and 2. there is nothing we can do about that. Someone pointed out that providing a GBI does not also give any recipient meaning or self respect. The GBI is a reoccurrence of the Roman Empire's bread and circuses, intended to keep an unemployed domestic population from rebelling against and overthrowing its masters.

However, discussing the GBI is a near-waste of time for a very different reason: the underlying tropes of "free market" capitalism, which now govern our daily lives via what I have defined as Billionairism, would never tolerate anything like a GBI, as our system is based on a cornerstone concept that people circling the drain have no one but themselves to blame; are re-enacting a basic Darwinian precept of nature; and should be permitted to suffer and die.

An intimately related concept is the one I have expressed, that the victims of America's "opioid epidemic" are actually dying of their Unbearable Lightness of Being in Billionaire-world.