August 2013

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

The battle for your desktop

With earlier generations of electric and electronic products, the battle for commercial supremacy ended with your purchase of the product. One you bought a brand Y toaster instead of brand X, and placed it on your counter, you happily toasted your morning bread without ever thinking again about the forces which influenced your decision. Until that toaster burned out one sad day and you needed to buy another, you did not need to concern yourself with brand messages or listen to any persuasion.

A computer is like a toaster within which market forces not only continue their battle, but dare to impede its functionality in the pursuit of a sale at any price. I am watching this phenomenon right now: Internet Explorer, which I do not use, updated itself overnight, and then froze the computer, so I lost minutes closing it and sending Microsoft an error message (which I make sure always to do out of spite). Gmail likes to tell me I am using an unsupported browser and therefore persuade me to download Google Chrome or something called Chrome Frame, thereby slowing down my reading of email.

Imagine a toaster which happily toasted only the brand of bread distributed by the toaster manufacturer, and ejected all others burnt.

Bradley Manning

Secrecy and democracy are inconsistent. While any practical person may grant that some covert policy is appropriate at times especially in wartime, the people cannot properly evaluate their officials at times when the majority of policy is condicted in the shadows. In such times, people like Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning heroically act to expose things which should have been visible in the first place.

I feel a small comfort in the fact the military judge did not convict Manning of the charge of giving comfort to the enemy. This is the great lie that has been told at all precarious times, that acting to counterbalance or democratize one's own adrift government is sympathetic to its foes. Manning nevertheless will likely spend the rest of his life in prison for an act I will always see as one of patriotism.

Edward Snowden

Snowden's actions were even more key to the preservation of a democracy than Manning's, as he disclosed the eye turned inwards. Thanks to him we know for sure that the NSA has access to all of our phone logs, a violation of personal privacy that should have been deeply disturbing to all Americans. We have been sliding for many years towards a total surveillance state and culture, while the protections of our Constitution and the need for warrants in particular becomes ever slighter. I hope Snowden stays free. Giving up his home, the right to live in his own country, was itself a terrible consequence of his patriotism.

Banks and the resurgent class system

Millions of Americans can't get a bank account because they once bounced a check somewhere. Banks are again closing branches in less lucrative neighborhoods. As a result, some fully employed people are being forced back into the nether economy of the expensive check cashing stores, red-lined again as they were in the sixties, with no access to credit other than the predatory schemes of high interest rate furniture and appliance financiers. We are sliding back into a world of discrimination and poverty we outgrew intellectually and morally: we know better than this.

Spitzer and Weiner

I don't believe either of these very messed up individuals deserves a second act in New York politics. Something about the city has always made it something of a freakshow; the same flexibility which means that people who were celebrities anywhere else have a chance to be elected here also dictates that people who have offended the red heartlands may find more tolerance. But being in politics while texting pictures of your crotch should really be inconsistent with public politics in any time and place, as should an addiction to prostitutes.

Christine Quinn

Quinn is someone I wish I could support; her background and presentation are very sympathetic. But she also illustrates a truism, that you can't prevail in this town without selling your soul to Wall Street somewhere along the way. The city would be a populist democracy if the votes of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Harlem really counted, but the Democratic machine, the corruptions of campaign finance, and the depradations of billionaires with political ambitions such as Michael Bloomberg continue to ensure you can't move or breathe in this town for long without Wall Street support. It is an oligarchy in practice, and has been almost since the inception, and no-one can aspire to run it or be advanced in it without being at peace with the oligarchy.

Crashing my Android

I try not to brag too much, but I probably am one of the few people who have crashed an Android phone by downloading too many books, and maybe the only one who overwhelmed it with Macaulay's History of England.