September 2016
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

I compile topics for this column by sending myself text messages. Then I can't remember what I meant by half of them. "Baseless lead"? "Angel moms general woundwort"?

I hate my IPhone

I hate the IPhone for a lot of reasons--I can't use it to buy music from Amazon, it doesn't run "Google Sky", and bizarrely it thinks that an index number such as 65462/2016 on the New York Court web system is a phone number, trying to dial it when I click a link to get to a case file. But I recently discovered that the IPhone also is configured to break Skype. My Verizon signal sucks where I live in the boonies, but when I try to use Skype as an alternative, the IPhone implementation still seeks out the lousy Verizon signal even though I have Wifi turned on. I have to put the phone into Airplane mode to use Skype the way it was intended. All of which is symptomatic of the fact that to Apple and, of course, Verizon, I am not a Kantian end but simply a means, a tool or mark to be exploited for profit. After decades of hearing people hype Apple's innovation and ethics, I couldn't be more disappointed.

Technology and incompetence

Another example this month of technology gone mad occurred on the HP Elitebook on which I am writing this, a Windows 10 laptop with which I had been rather satisfied. It was 6 a.m. on the day of a jury trial and I was typing a document I needed to submit to the court in three hours. The image on the screen on the computer, which also pretends to be a tablet (a function I didn't want, but the price was right), turned upside down, like something which would happen in a Bunuel or Tim Burton movie. I had to take a twenty minute break from my drafting to research how to correct it. This is an example of something which should never happen and which was undoubtedly a result of the general incompetence we have come to accept as a given in computer technology, a market in which quality is no longer important. I always say this, but if toasters worked like laptops, you would never know whether the bread would emerge completely unaffected or burnt to a crisp.

Politics and incompetence

Excusing ridiculous flaws in products is related to doing so in our politicians. We are electing people so marginal they could never have gotten in in a world where we cared foremost about sanity and competence. The spectacle of Maine governor LePage having what appears to be a nervous breakdown is just a forerunner of things to come (and to come quite soon, if Donald Trump is elected). But, as I say in the lead article, we live in a "post-facts" world.


Obamacare is a failure of competence which is affecting me personally. I remember not forgiving a professor of mine at college who said, during the height of the Watergate era, amidst scandal, instability and danger, that "Things would have to get a lot worse before they stopped delivering the milk to my door every morning" (yes, milk used to be delivered every day, also seltzer in spray bottles). I am not receiving the metaphorical milk delivery of Obamacare.

I hadn't been anyone's employee since 2007. By 2009 or so, when my COBRA ran out, I was on the verge of having to leave New York to find individual health insurance I could afford. Then I found an obscure nonprofit through which I could get group coverage. Along came Obamacare, which forced the nonprofit out of the market (by requiring all sponsors to contribute to premiums; there should have been an exception for nonprofit organizations which are not your employer). After fifty or so tries on a highly flawed New York state website, I obtained coverage which was a little better than what I already had, and cost about $50 a month less. Now Obamacare co-ops are failing, and insurers are fleeing the marketplaces in droves. New York premiums for the remaining companies are rising about 15% this year (much better than the 50-60% increases reported in some other states).If you and I and 10,000 of our closest friends were sitting on a hill designing a constitution for our new planet (my all-time favorite thought experiment), I would argue until I ran out of breath that, as a government function, assuring our health takes precedence over internal security. I would have both, but spend more on health care. I am in New York City every week, in endangered places like Times Square and Penn Station, and I actually was under the World Trade Center on 9/11 as the second plane hit, yet I know that my chances of dying of cancer or heart disease are far greater than being the victim of a mass shooting or terrorist bomb. I want government health care, but single payer, single payer, SINGLE PAYER, not this ridiculously complicated Obamacare machine with too many subsystems and moving parts which is blowing up and crashing to earth like a failing space station at the end of a cheesy science fiction movie.

The Republican "base"

Ha, I figured out what I meant by "baseless lead" (it wasnt about lead in the Flint water). For years we have been listening to Republicans talk about their "base", and pundits pondering how the Republicans could think their base was so far to the right of the American public as illuminated by polls on abortion and same sex marriage. David Daley provides an answer in Ratf**cked (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation 2016): the triumphant gerry-mandering attained through the party's capture of state houses via the "REDMAP" project means that the Koch Brothers are the only base. The reason Republicans play to the far right is the fear that, if they don't, the Kochs, the NRA, Sheldon Adelson or some other billionaire will finance a challenger in the next primary. This was a fairly well kept secret, considering the answer was in plain sight for anyone who cared to look. But Donald Trump just outed the Republican Party, by showing that the people who actually vote Republican, who should have been considered the "base" if the Kochs et al hadn't succeeded in detaching the party from its voters, actually don't care about most of the social issues sacred to the billionaires--and also have finally woken up to the fact that the Republican Party (as Thomas Frank says in another influential book, What's the Matter With Kansas? (New York: Metropolitan Books 2004)) has never delivered, or even intended to deliver, on its promise of jobs or prosperity.

Incidentally, the title "Ratf**ked" (their asterisks, not mine, I have no problem saying "ratfucked" here) for a scholarly work is itself symptomatic of the vulgarization of public discourse, the need for a crude title to break a book out of the pack.

Trump babbling

Trump gives a dozen examples per day of the fact that he has no idea what he is talking about, is literally babbling. One that zipped past without much attention was a statement about his Mexican visit, during NBC's "Commander in Chief" forum: “If you look at what happened, look at the aftermath today, the people who arranged [my] trip [to] Mexico have been forced out of government. That’s how well we did, and that’s how well we’re going to do have to do.” ( "Campaign 2016 updates: Donald Trump indicates allowing those in the country illegally to stay if they join military"). In other words, a trip intended to establish Trump's statesmanship, his "Presidentiality", and which resulted in chaos, anger and recriminations, was successful, because it had bad results. This is truly Orwellian. Trump and his slightly wiser campaign managers immediately abandoned this trope, which was never heard again.

Another great example of Trump babbling, about the just-apprehended, and shot, man who had planted bombs in Manhattan and New Jersey: "[T]he bad part — we will probably give him amazing hospitalization. He will be taken care of by some of the best doctors in the world. He will be given a fully modern and updated hospital room. And he'll probably even have room service, the way our country is." (Pamela Engel, "TRUMP: 'Evil thug' suspected of bombing New York will probably 'have room service' while in custody") Trump seems to mean that the guy should have been left to bleed to death in the street, or maybe even executed with an additional shot to the head, or at the very least, forced to walk to the cafeteria from his hospital room.


All language uttered by the powerful is meaningful, as much for what it ignores as what it includes; in fact, ignorant and stupid language has particularly "performative" effects, causing distress, chaos or even death in the real world. An interesting trope that has been gaining currency is the idea of an "unelected" Supreme Court, see Eric Black, "Why should the unelected Supreme Court get the final say about our laws?", and which has regrettably even been used by President Obama (Noah Rothman, "Obama Asks ‘Unelected’ Supreme Court Not To Take Extraordinary Step Of Overturning Health Care Law"). Say what? The Supreme Court is "unelected" because that is the way the Framers designed it, in a system embodying Enlightenment values that has worked pretty well. Anyone who doesn't want to continue to have "unelected" Supreme Court judges is advocating that we throw that system on the floor and shatter it, like Inspector Clouseau: "That's a priceless Ming vase!" "Not any more!"

No Man's Sky

Circa 1990, after some pleasurable sojourns in the worlds of Ultima and other RPG's, I stopped playing any computer games, when I figured out that the time and energy I devoted to them was the same that I needed for writing. Today, I have been living vicariously, reading about No Man's Sky (it couldn't have been titled "No One's Sky", seriously?). Math generated, huge, beautiful, empty, routinized, superficial and buggy, it is disappointing its customers, who are abandoning it in droves. There's a metaphor in that, that nothing can be created, a game or a bridge or a corporation or a television show or a fruit drink or a country, without putting some human soul and attention into the details--with particular attention to the Kantian needs of the actual customer. Ha, it really is no-ones sky.

Dropping from the Enlightenment Tree

In what is likely to be its third and last decade, the theme of this Ethical Spectacle, which I began publishing in 1995, has become "the Flight From Enlightenment". As a major incident of this story, witness all of the nations leaving the Enlightenment compact, some of whom were fully in and even the original engineers of the compact (Britain via Brexit, the U.S. if it elects Trump); some were newer members (Venezuela, dissolving in government-induced famine); some were barely-tolerated chaotic cousins (the Philippines, with its Trumpian-leader exhorting mass murder),and some were aspirants (Turkey, which before the recent coup, was almost in).

Ted Cruz

Cruz's late, pathetic endorsement of Donald Trump proves of course he is an unprincipled ho. A number of pundits have observed that Trump exerts some kind of weird gravitation-like force that makes all the people who stay in his orbit Lear-like "humiliatees": Guiliani, Christie, Gingrich and even Paul Ryan.


I think Edward Snowden made a net contribution of major benefit to our democracy, like Daniel Ellsberg. I support a pardon.