Rags and Bones
August 2014
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net


At this late date, I still find it hard to believe that a race riot/police riot can be happening in Missouri as if it were still 1964, as if no time had passed and nobody had learned anything. I watched live footage last night of teargas canisters flying everywhere, including into people’s yards, and listened to on air indignation about fellow journalists being arrested just for doing their job. However, I couldn’t help thinking that some police rioting also happened right here in NYC during Occupy--on the night of November 15, 2011, a cop struck me and I wound up in a jail cell with a NY Post reporter and a Times blogger, while an NPR reporter was in the women’s cell next door. I don’t remember MSNBC getting as worked up about that, but perhaps I just missed it because I was in the cell, not watching television.


The astonishing degree of unmonitored, uncontained guard brutality on Rikers, found by the Justice Department and the New York Times, confirms what New Yorkers have always believed about Rikers: you don’t want to go there no matter what. Rikers is where you are held pending trial, sometimes for a couple of years, or where you are sent, instead of prison, to serve a sentence of under six months. People arrested for violations such as disorderly conduct, the staple charge used against protesters (that’s what I was charged with the night of the eviction, for doing absolutely nothing) are vulnerable to a 13 day sentence there. We all cheerfully believed that nobody would actually be sent there for Occupy protests until one judge sentenced a man for refusing to obey a police order to leave Central Park at 1:30 a.m. The demonstrator in question was reportedly on his knees, praying for peace, when he ignored the cops. We all heard about it third hand, like an urban legend, so I can’t verify details. I can tell you that immediately after, hundreds of people who were planning to go to trial took pleas or adjournments in contemplation of dismissal instead. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, “I can’t do Rikers”.

Rikers is a place where, if they don’t like you, the guards take you someplace out of the view of security cameras, and beat you til you bleed, even if you are in cuffs or strapped to a gurney. It was always bad, but it got much worse during the Bloomberg administration, proving that mayor’s essentially medieval nature; he was a baron who talked a good game about honor, while instituting stop and frisk, mass Occupy arrests, raids and the eviction, Rikers beatings, a mass police culture of violence, exceptionalism and lies.


Vladimir Putin is two things: a despot and not very intelligent. He probably was never as smart as, say, Napoleon or Franklin Roosevelt; I put him more on the spectrum somewhere between Ronald Reagan and the second Bush (whom Molly Ivins referred to, in his Texas years, as “Governor Shrub”). His vanity has overcome whatever smarts he had; did he really think anyone would believe the photo opp where he scuba dove in ten feet of water and emerged with two rare and intact Greek amphorae? Please.

The problem is that he dominates a superpower and is making decisions about matters like invading Ukraine with that same lack of critical thinking.

I was seventeen when, at a meeting at my high school, I watched the principal trying to explain to parents his reaction to anti-war protests (I was threatened with expulsion) and first had the insight that the world is run mostly by very immature people, children really. In some cases, such as Putin, the kids have nuclear weapons.

War coverage

I have been watching Al Jazeera a lot for its greater in depth coverage of the Gaza conflict (as some Israelis are too, per the Times) and saw some footage of troops and shooting. I remember the nightly news coverage of, wait for it, Vietnam, when you saw uniforms and tracers every night. You don’t see any such coverage of Iraq or Afghanistan on CNN, Fox or MSNBC or the nightly broadcast news. What changed? When did the media agree that the most we are able to endure is a sanitized view? Who gave them that right?

By the way, Al Jazeera is highly intelligent and detailed in its coverage, really a refreshing alternative to the big three. I remember how it couldn’t gain any traction here after 9/11, given the Arabic name and our reflexive bigotry.

Border crisis

The elephant in the room in the coverage of, and political reactions to, the people thronging our border is the conditions they are fleeing. Nobody is coming here to make $2 more an hour; they are coming because they think they will die at home. You would do the same, probably: walk a thousand miles with your family to live instead of starve or be shot. What are the conditions back home, and did we, the U.S., in some way, through diplomacy or business (sometimes indistinguishable) contribute to them becoming intolerable? What are we going to do to ameliorate them? Building hundred foot high electrified walls around our entire country, as the rest of the world increasingly tries to walk here, is not really a practical long term solution.


Senator John Walsh of Montana is the latest high level plagiarist to be exposed. Plagiarism seems to be endemic, epidemic and systemic in our world. Years ago, a major newsmagazine discovered that one of its writers had borrowed large unattributed chunks of an article by my wife-- which we then discovered had also been expropriated by an adjunct professor at a New York college. More recently, I was informed that a writer more famous than me (not hard, I am unknown) had lifted chunks of a piece I wrote on James Joyce for a speech to a PEN conference. (I took it as a great compliment my stuff was steal-worthy.)

The reason there is so much plagiarism is partly a combination of cultural immorality and easy availability--like software piracy, so easy and usually private that nobody thought it immoral.The difference is that anyone can do a Google search on a unique phrase and nail you for stealing, so plagiarism involves greater complacency and stupidity.

I think there is a higher level change in the zeitgeist which promotes plagiarism: it is the transformation, an effect of late capitalism, from artisanal to mass produced products. Prose, whether fiction or nonfiction, was through-out history the most artisanal of work. Today we have “team novelists” who employ entire factories of scribblers to turn out twelve novels or more a year, historians who similarly employ groups of “researchers” to turn out an annual book, and book packagers like the one responsible for the Opal Mehta Got Kissed debacle. If you don’t remember that one, anonymous workers under tight deadlines (my theory, can’t prove it) plagiarized and the recruited author, an Indian American Harvard student, had to take the rap for stealing, rather than admit she didn’t write her own novel. A new Reagan biographer is accused of this kind of “borrowing”, and several historians I formerly respected have faced the same accusation in recent years. In a mass production environment, using other people’s materials seems like a barely technical fault, not really stealing at all, since the end product isn’t expected to have any individuality or soul.

My notes

I send myself text messages to memorialize the things I want to write about here, and increasingly (I just turned 60) have no idea what I meant by some of them. I texted myself “ceasefire birthday talleyrand” on July 17 and “repeal impeachment” on July 23. Huh?

Mallet theorem

I want modestly to propose what I will call the “mallet theorem”, a kind of thought experiment/ moral test which I believe will help us refine what we are really talking about in certain moral-political debates. For example, you are arguing that we have no duty to death row prisoners to reveal the names and sources of the drugs we will use to execute them. My question to you: why don’t we just take the prisoner out in the backyard and hit him in the head with a big old mallet? If you respond sincerely that is fine with you (I have met a number of people who would) I have just learned a whole lot about you (and will probably turn away from our argument). If that’s not ok with you, I will argue that executing them with unknown drugs (which keep predictably resulting in botched executions) is morally the same as the mallet.