November 2009
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Rags and Bones

A monthly column by Jonathan Wallace

Never-ending shame in Texas

Every time you think the moral bar could not be set any lower for Texas governors, it drops a few more inches.

In last month’s Rags and Bones, I mentioned that Texas had executed Cameron Willingham for an arson that experts were now saying was an accidental fire. That happened on governor Rick Perry’s watch. A state government board called the Forensic Science Commission, which has the mission of investigating notoriously sloppy Texas forensics, had scheduled a hearing at which an arson specialist, Craig Beyler, was going to testify. Beyler, hired by the board to review the “science” presented at Willingham’s trial, had written that the expert witnesses who helped obtain the death sentence had “a poor understanding of fire science”.

Governor Perry has just fired the chairman and two members of the board. Their political hack replacements cancelled the hearing at which Beyler was scheduled to testify. Perry, who is up for re-election, claims that there was nothing political about the firings or the cancellation of Beyler. Just a wild coincidence, I guess.

GOP Infidelity

Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada, fucked the wife of his best friend (who was also his chief of staff), then pulled strings to get the friend a lobbyist position and sent him clients, disregarding revolving door laws which say that the friend needed to sit out a while before acting as a lobbyist. The irony is, of course, that Ensign, like many other marital cheaters in the GOP, voted to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about his infidelity. In a recent interview, before the latest revelations about misuse of his office, Ensign tried to draw the distinction that his cheating was personal, while Clinton’s somehow had national or political implications.

It seems to be a given that when you read about a Republican Congresscritter cheating on his wife, you discover that he also voted to impeach Clinton for doing the same thing. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, of course, was an early, notorious offender. Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, whose press secretary announced he was hiking the Appalachian trail when he was really in Argentina with his zou-zou, voted for impeachment as a member of the House. Congressman Vito Fossella of Staten Island voted to impeach Clinton as a new Congressman. We now know he had a child out of wedlock with a long time paramour; the relationship came to light when she bailed him out after a DWI arrest. Senator Larry Craig of Idaho said in a statement to his constituents explaining his vote to impeach: “If we were in a church, the minister would admonish us from the pulpit to hate the sin and forgive the sinner. But we're not in a church.” He was the one later arrested playing footsie with another man in the toilet of a Minnesota airport. Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, who had apparently hired prostitutes via the “D.C. Madam”, was a Republican state representative when he wrote a slashing editorial calling for impeachment proceedings to determine whether Clinton was “morally unfit” to govern.

I remember the powerful moment in “Howard’s End” when Margaret, on the subject of her unmarried sister’s pregnancy, says to her moralistic, oblivious and formerly cheating husband: “Only say to yourself, 'What Helen has done, I've done.'" The line, one of the best in modern literature, hits like a hammer. “What Bill Clinton has done, I have done.”

All this Republican infidelity, too much of it to be merely a statistical freak—and how many of those who voted to impeach have not yet been exposed?—underlines the fact that the impeachment proceedings were not about morality. They were about naked power, the desire of the Republicans to transform America into a one party state.

Liz Cheney and euphemism

Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz has picked up her dad’s gauntlet, and is being talked up for public office by the Republicans. In a recent Times article, she is quoted as saying:

Mr. President, in a ticking time-bomb scenario, with American lives at stake, are you really unwilling to subject a terrorist to enhanced interrogation to get information that would prevent an attack?

Good one! In last month’s article on the Republican transformation of language, I concentrated on the use of empty derogatory words like “Socialist”. Used as if they still had content, these words no longer mean anything other than “we hate you.” I mentioned in passing that Republicans have also gone the other way, finding innocuous euphemisms for quite horrible acts. I quoted the precedent of the Nazi coinage “sonderbehandlung”, which literally meant “special handling” but denoted murder. “Enhanced interrogation” is a great new phrase, taking its place in a time-dishonored lexicon.

If you believe torture is sometimes appropriate, it would be honest to say so. Alan Dershowitz, who called for torture warrants, is depraved but honest. People who deny that water-boarding, slamming into walls, enforced nudity and cold, slapping and (the most recent revelations) threatening subjects with handguns and even power drills, are acts of torture, are liars. Dick Cheney, who said torture was no more serious than fraternity hazing, is a liar. Liz Cheney is a liar.

Women Times Columnists

Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins (who ran the op ed page for a while) are the Times’only regular female columnists. A Google search pops up a lot of angry editorials and articles (in other publications, of course), about the gross underrepresentation of women writers on the op ed pages of major newspapers. But I have another issue as well. Dowd and Collins both, by comparison to male columnists like Krugman, Kristof and Herbert, write in a relatively light-hearted, insubstantial style.

As late as the sixties (the decade where I went from six to sixteen), I remember women who had been trained by society to be frivolous, self-deprecating, and deferential to men. I remember almost being hit while crossing the street at age seven, by a female driver who, when she realized she was running a red light, actually removed her hands from the wheel and held them up in an expression of horror. In the nineties, when I started driving a car, the world was suddenly full of serious, intent female drivers, whose skills were much stronger than mine—who were able to drive faster, with greater control of the vehicle, while understanding the car’s speed and size much better than I did, so they could merge into openings in traffic I would never have attempted. The difference was not only thirty years, but a change in society’s perception of women. . Women were being socialized to know they could drive, rather than think they couldn’t.

I honestly believe that both Collins and Dowd write like throwbacks to the 1950’s, women who believe that they will only be heard on heavy topics if they take a teasing, fey approach, and throw in references to lipstick or thongs. They are surrounded by deadly serious male policy wonks, unafraid to take simple, clear stands without poking fun at themselves. Certainly the world is full of women who write for op ed pages elsewhere without feeling the need to be cute (Susan Estrich, for example).

I fault the Times for offering these two smart women a deal with the devil: You can publish in the world’s greatest newspaper as long as you do so like an apologetic 1950’s career woman, who knows she should be at home raising children; but I also fault the women, who are capable of so much more, for taking the deal.

Leveraged buy outs

An article in the Times for October 5 describes the plight of the Simmonds Bedding Company, a 130 year old business filing for bankruptcy after being crushed by several generations of debt imposed on it by leveraged buy out firms that made millions of dollars. Employees who worked there for decades have been laid off. As we saw in the ‘80’s when these buy-outs became popular, they neither create jobs, nor do they always (or even usually, I suspect) clear dead wood from the market. They destroy living businesses and the lives of the people involved with them. Arranging for a company to pay for its own acquisition by taking loans or issuing debt is a gross conflict of interest and shouldn’t be allowed. There is no moral difference between an LBO and the actions of the Mafia in stripping a company and then abandoning it.

The Arab world

A random thought I have had for a while: there are various nations and cultures in the Arab and Islamic world which seem to have a disturbingly dual view of the United States: they want to trade with us some and kill us some.

The lesson from Guinea

Hundreds of peaceful protestors went to a stadium to object to the plans of the military dictator to run for president. Troops shot more than one hundred and fifty of them dead, and raped scores of women. This made me think of a peaceful anti-war protest in Beirut years ago which was broken up by gunfire from Hezbollah. Incidents like this show the limits of nonviolence. As I wrote years ago in an essay called The Gandhi Game, nonviolence only works against an honorable opponent who will stop short of mass murder and rape in his response. Even Gandhi recognized that there were circumstances in which violence might be an appropriate response to oppression: "Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence."

Which leads to another thought: even the most violent, arbitrary dictatorships effectively exist by the consent of the governed. No government, not ours, not the Chinese, certainly not that of Guinea, could survive one instant if the entire population of the country (or a large enough part of it) stood up and said, “we don’t want you any more.” Hitler and Stalin continued in place at the very end not because of the loyalty of their subjects, but through people’s complacency and fear of personal risk.

Lethal injection

In Ohio, the execution of a prisoner failed when the government employees responsible for slaying him failed to find a vein. This situation has a kind of baroque humor to it. Their job was to cause his death, but to do it according to certain “civilized” rules which would make it look as much as possible like an everyday bureaucratic procedure, such as renewing his driver’s license. Therefore, when they were unable to kill him by lethal injection, the law constrained them from simply hitting him in the head with a hammer.

Jon Kyl on health

As with Liz Cheney above, one of the most enjoyable aspects in writing essays for the Spectacle is analyzing quotes from pundits and politicians, which communicate meanings far different than their plain words. Sometimes we get a glimpse of an entire alien moral universe in a single phrase, like an unpleasantly scented breeze from a distant land.

Here’s a statement I particularly enjoyed from Senator John Kyl, Republican of Arizona:

For the life of me, I don’t see why Washington has to dictate what kind of [health] insurance you get to buy. Why not let the consumer decide?

I for one am awfully glad that Kyl was not captain of the Titanic:

For the life of me, I don’t see why Washington has to dictate what kind of flotation devices we carry. Why not let the passenger decide how to float?

Scalia again

While we are talking about eye opening utterances, here’s a great one from Justice Scalia, who has been impressing me recently with his deadpan, don’t give a fuck attitude:

I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead the cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.

Please, Mr. Scalia! I am an agnostic Jew, and if I died for this country and you put a cross over my grave, I would rise up and haunt you. The cross is the emblem of a religion that has an extremely checkered history where I am concerned, from outright massacre of my ancestors in the Middle Ages to inaction while Hitler killed them. Although (as a New Yorker) I have encountered very little direct anti-semitism in my life, the cross reminds me of the kid who told me in the schoolyard at PS 193 almost fifty years ago, “You killed Christ”, and the co-worker who told me in the mid-nineties (while we were alone on a long car trip from Dallas to Austin) that “The Jews killed our Lord.” The cross in a public place has the following subtext: “You, Jonathan Wallace, Jew, are not my equal in this country, which is a Christian nation. You are merely tolerated here.” As someone born here, who loves this country and regards himself as a patriot, I have spent most of my life completely oblivious (as I believe an American should be) to the differences between me and you. When you stick a cross in my face—a government endorsed cross on what was originally public parkland, in this particular case—you eject me from the nation to which I always believed I belonged.

Mr. Scalia, I have a very modest proposal. When you pass away—which I certainly hope is many years from now—why don’t we honor you by burying you under a Star of David? Do you think the Star of David honors only the Jewish dead? Or would that be an outrageous conclusion?

The consequences of speech

I turned 55 years old in July, which shocks me because I am still trying to determine what I want to be when I grow up. I have written three amicus briefs to the Supreme Court in my life, one ghost-written and two with my name on them. Two were on Internet censorship, but the third, which I am most proud of, was on the constitutional rights of Jose Padilla, an accused Al Qaeda detainee being held in a military brig, I have had the idea that at some point I might hire a law student, find a professor to act as advisor, and start filing one or two amici a year. But now that I have called Justice Scalia a sociopath in these pages, perhaps I’d better not. I had even dreamed I might one day argue a case in the Supreme Court (where I am admitted to practice), but it would be no service to my client to have a Justice ask me, “Aren’t you the guy who said I have a deadpan, don’t give a fuck attitude? Who wanted to bury me under a Jewish star?”

When I started the Spectacle in January 1995, I paid very little attention to the consequences of speech in this country. I have been remarkably immune from them personally, in large part through what we called “security in obscurity” in the computer field. I worked for an employer who was my friend. He was aware of the Spectacle and personally greatly disagreed with most of my viewpoints, but respected my right to speak out. Now I am retired and therefore am even more insulated from the consequences of having opinions. There have been a couple times in my life, when I was casting around for what to do next, when I realized it would be impossible for me to enter politics, or to work for a wide range of companies including many nonprofits, because of the Spectacle. I have taken positions here which would be anathema to many employers, and contradictory even to the stated views of nonprofits I support.

I have no regrets and don’t feel I’ve ever been really hurt. About two years ago, I was reminded that the First Amendment only protects us against government and not private punishment, when I wrote two case studies of people who lost their jobs as a result of the expression of unpopular opinions (or, in one case, slander alleging a belief the individual did not really hold). In polite company, it remains true as it did in Victorian times, that we don’t talk about religion or politics. This is not a good thing; what it really means, much of the time, is that the person sitting across from you is holding unaired, undebated views like those of Justice Scalia set forth above. I think its really better to turn over the rock and shine a light on what emerges, than to sit together in hypocritical silence.

Health insurance as a moral issue

I concentrate on saying things here that are being omitted or ignored in the mainstream press, but Nicholas Kristof in the Times for October 8 has a piece I would be honored to run in the Spectacle. He makes a “modest” proposal that Congressfolk try functioning without health insurance awhile, to see what it feels like. In his penultimate paragraph, he points out how much time we lose, and how much life is lost as a consequence, every time partisanship torpedoes health care reform: 19 years elapsed after Nixon tried it; 16 years after Clinton failed. He notes that 700,000 Americans will die unnecessarily if we wait 16 more years. He points out that’s more Americans than died in every U.S. war from World War I through Iraq. His magnificent closing words are as follows:

The collapse of health reform would be a political and policy failure, but it would also be a profound moral failure. Periodically, there are political questions that are fundamentally moral, including slavery in the 19th century and civil rights battles in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. In the same way, allowing tens of thousands of Americans to die each year because they are uninsured is not simply unwise and unfortunate. It is also wrong—a moral blot on a great nation.

And the blithering idiot award goes to….

Republican Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana. He opposed a measure defining anti-gay attacks as hate crimes by claiming it would inhibit freedom of speech by (paraphrase from the Times for October 9) deterring “religious leaders from discussing their views on homosexuality for fear that those publicly expressed views might be linked to later assaults.”

Wow. Let me get this straight. Let’s postulate an outspoken guy, Karl K. Kepler, who believes literally the Old Testament prescription that gay people should be stoned to death. Pence doesn’t want Karl to be deterred from saying so out loud, for fear that when he later stones a gay man to death, he might do more prison time than if he kept his mouth shut!

I am actually speechless….Pence’s blithering contains so many levels of malice, stupidity and wrongness that I wouldn’t know where to begin….

Cheney, Kyl, Scalia, and Pence deploying lovely loops of lies and indirection. Do you see a pattern here? Torture as “enhanced interrogation”, the lack of health insurance as freedom of choice, crosses as secular monuments for us all, and hate crimes legislation chilling freedom of speech….Its positively Orwellian: “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength." It is Republicanspeak, their ongoing destruction of language and logic.

Obama’s Nobel

The president certainly has the intelligence, values and strength of character that could earn him a Nobel someday. But he hasn’t really done anything yet. Giving him the peace prize was way premature and very political: an expression of cosmic relief on Europe’s part that Americans are still capable of electing someone with intelligence, values and strength of character.

Auction fraud as activism

There is an enjoyable story in the Times for October 10 about a young man who stalled the sale of oil leases in Utah by making a winning bid he had neither the money, nor the intention, to carry out. He now faces prosecution for his action. The kicker is that the Obama administration has renounced the leases as improvidently granted by its predecessor. The defendant is mounting a “necessity” defense, that his lies brought about the lesser of two evils.

Anyone who took a criminal law course in law school knows that a necessity defense won’t wash here; nothing forced him to dress up, comb his hair and go to an auction. This might be the case, however, where prosecutorial discretion (which exists) and compassion (a mythical animal) should kick in. In a world full of violent criminals, and of “white collar” types who only ruined the lives and expectations of their financial victims, is it really a sensible use of state resources to go after this kid?

This reminds me of an only slightly related story I love to tell. In the 1980’s, for about a year and a half, a docked container ship with listless sailors strolling its deck was a familiar sight from the Brooklyn Promenade. The ship’s owner had filed for bankruptcy, and the sailors, who did not have visas to enter the United States, were stranded on board while a bankruptcy court slowly worked out their destiny. Finally an auction was held at the ancient offices of a seaman’s charity a few blocks away. Afterwards, it was determined that the winning bidder was a homeless schizophrenic who had wandered in off the street. Why they couldn’t give the ship to the second highest bidder I don’t know, but the unhappy sailors were stranded for some additional weeks or months until the auction could be held again.

Shrinking food

I am somewhat insulated from the worst of this economy, but there are little reminders in the landscape, such as shuttered businesses that had thrived, or at least survived, for years. The “home exchange” section of the Easthampton town dump, where I eagerly go to scavenge the books other people are throwing out, is now open only one day a week, instead of four, presumably because there are fewer employees available to supervise it.

In my town of Amagansett is a take out burrito restaurant, La Fondida, opened years ago by a suave restaurateur, owner of one of the most famous local places where the wealthy and famous are seen. A friend of mine pronounced it the best Tex-Mex food he had encountered outside California. There was a transitional moment when there seemed to be less chicken in the burritos. Last night I was there for the first time in a year, and the burrito I received was only half the size I am used to. For a full meal, I would now need two of them when one sufficed before—an innovative way to raise prices while purporting to keep them the same. Surely, the prices of ingredients are going down, but rents continue to go up, and there are fewer customers.

Scalia one more time

One of the most disturbing and arbitrary exercises of government power, before the extraordinary post-911 surge of U.S. war crimes, has been the seizure of vehicles and other assets practiced by local governments. Without any hearing, your car or your home can be taken from you on the theory that it was used in connection with a crime, often a drug crime, and it may take years, and hundreds of thousands in legal fees, to get it back. In many cases, the local police force then makes use of your possession, or resells it and keeps the revenue, so cops and prosecutors have a strong financial incentive to seize cars and other assets.

You would think Justice Scalia would be all over this as an example of big government abuse, right? No, it appears big and arbitrary government is fine so long as it is manifesting itself in the law enforcement realm. In the oral argument a couple of weeks ago of a case pertaining to seizure of cars and cash by Chicago authorities, Scalia said that he thought the case was moot, because the individual plaintiffs had already resolved their disputes with the state. But the Supreme Court is supposed to take any such cases if the action is “capable of repetition yet evading review”. It sounds like a hypocritical way to avoid confronting a particular governmental abuse on the merits.

The impossibility of the difficult

One general lesson emerging from the prospect of failure of health care reform (or at least of the sweeping, meaningful reform which is badly needed): a significant aspect of the crisis of American democracy is the lack of leadership, good faith and political will necessary to do anything complicated. In a functional democracy, a loyal opposition would cooperate to seek a compromise solution to such an obvious emergency, and the people would be able to trust their elected representatives to solve problems they themselves don’t understand in detail. In our system, all of these elements are lacking. Imagine any complicated enterprise, faced by the likes of Rush Limbaugh screaming about Socialism and treason; it is unimaginable that social security or Medicare could be passed today, if they didn’t already exist. The failure of health care reform in the ‘90’s, when the Harry and Louise ads trumped the already pressing need for reform, are a case study of the triumph of rhetoric over substance.

Medical marijuana

The Obama adminsitration’s decision not to prosecute medical marijuana suppliers in states where their actions are legal is a perfect and graceful implementation of state’s rights. Are Republican Congressmen grateful? No; Senator Grassley of Iowa is among those taking the lead in attacking the decision, claiming that marijuana use leads to harder drugs.

In Republican-world, big government is fine as long as it restricts its activities to law enforcement, protecting religion and implementing social rules. Republicans just want government to stay out of the field of business regulation.

Roman Polanski

What Roman Polanski did was criminal and shameful. He had sex with a thirteen year old girl, whom the law rightly protected as too young to consent to the encounter. The group of actors and other celebrities who have tried to justify and excuse him are participating in a gross act of cynicism and moral relativism. They start from the premise that because he is a talented director, or a good fellow, the cr ime should be excused. Others point to the passage of time, or to the fact that his victim has forgiven him. There was also some potential prosecutorial misconduct, counseling a judge ex parte without the defense attorney present, how to handle the case.

All of this is relevant to the sentence, or whether his initial guilty plea holds, or whether he should receive a trial now. But none of it obviates the fact he did a terrible thing, then fled the United States and has lived in comfort and fame ever since.

Anonymity and referendum petitions

The Supreme Court will consider a really interesting free speech issue, whether signatures on petitions to schedule referendums may be kept anonymous or should be disclosed as public records. There has already been a case of a Mormon manager for a California theatre, who dealt extensively with gay playwrights and actors, resigning his job after disclosure that he supported the successful referendum which repealed gay marriage in California. Advocates of privacy are arguing that the “outing” of anti-gay signators will lead to their harassment or firing.

Looked at another way, these advocates are fighting for the right to keep bigotry a secret. I wrote here I had no problem with the resignation of the theatre manager; he had no fundamental constitutional right to deal with the gay community while secretly supporting measures which would harm the people he dealt with.

Years ago, I wrote a Cato Institute briefing paper and a book chapter about the Constitutional right of anonymous speech. “The Rights of Man”, The Federalist Papers and many other key documents of democracy were published anonymously, and it is well recognized that the First Amendment protects the right to speak your mind without identifying yourself.

I have no problem reconciling these two apparently contradictory assertions. Signing a petition to place a referendum on the ballot crosses the line from speech to action: it has specific legislative consequences. For the public good we have to be able to review and verify signatures. It is also useful for voters to know which groups and interests are acting to change the laws of the state (in this case the Mormons were particularly active in oppoing gay marriage). Just as we wouldn’t want our elected legislators to vote in perfect secrecy without being held accountable, people acting as legislators under referendum petition laws may usefully be required to identify themselves.

Maize maze

I was amused to see a sign along Route 27 in the Hamptons which said “Maze 1.5 miles ” Between the “a” and “z” were a picture of an ear of corn, which ambiguously also might stand in for an “i”. I did not take the turn, but wondered: will those following the sign a mile and a half off the highway, find a maze or a simple wheelbarrow full of the ornamental, inedible, dried corn we decorate our houses with at Thanksgiving? “Excuse me, but I expected to find a maze I could wander through with my children.” “We have none, but would you like to buy some dried corn while you’re here?”


In a bungalow colony in Marshall’s Creek, Pennsylvania which my parents took us to in 1961, the counselors held a toy airplane contest. While others released their rubber-band driven craft and hurled their gliders, I sat winding the rubber band on mine until it made double, triple and quadruple knots. When the counselor thought there were no more contestants, I stood up and released my plane, which flew farther than anyone’s, into the woods, and was lost.

I have been winding the Ethical Spectacle since January 1995.