November 2016
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace


One of the "books that wrote me" is Joseph Tainter, Collapse of Complex Societies, in which he argues that what happened to Rome was actually a controlled pulling-apart, as bourgeois citizens everywhere decided that Rome had begun to cost more in taxes than the services it still provided were worth, and calculated that allegiance to the local Goth king would work out better.

Something I don't think Tainter saw in his theorizing about a controlled retreat from complexity is in that in the Roman empire the projection of power was entirely based on communications, so that the statement "Let us simplify" was (in the language philosopher J.L. Austin's term) "performative" in the sense that it was a communication of a decision to stop communicating which carried out the intended effect of unstitching the communicative ligaments of empire.

Our empire is very different because it includes powerful agencies, such as nuclear weapons and plants, coal and oil being extracted and burned, capitalism's engines in general, which are separated from words. No words can be performative on a nuclear plant, but can only command (suggest, really) an action which must then be somewhat voluntarily performed by a human.

So Trump's (implied) statement "Let us simplify" is not performative at all, because the forces behind climate change, for example, will continue unchecked. Run through the neurolinguistic translator, "Let us simplify" in a Trumpean context means nothing more than "Let us end vigilance", really "Let us look away". The result is not a Tainteresque political simplification but the opposite, an acceleration of the forces, now unchecked, driving us over the cliff.

There is a second departure from what Tainter contemplated. His vision of the decline of Rome is a sort of good faith viral realization all over the empire that it wasn't working any more, and an organized retreat by people in Egypt, for example, who had no idea that people in France were thinking the same way. Our simplification is by comparison a stage-managed fake, the results of decades of Republican lying and screaming that a system which was working tolerably well had failed. In effect what has happened is that the oligarchs have persuaded the Trump voters, in a classic act of misdirection, to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, who now can continue his inequalizing, world-destroying and wasting work in peace.

Jews defending anti-Semitism

Jewish reporters who have written about Trump, and also some whose last name just sounds kinda Jewish ("Kaczynski") are being barraged with tweets containing graphic Photoshopped images of themselves in Auschwitz, in ovens, with bleeding bullet holes. Sometimes the caption says "Camp Trump", sometimes there is a drawing of Trump himself pulling the oven switch. This is happening in plain sight; you can do a Google search and easily find the evidence. But its not getting as much coverage as it should, given that I am a 62 year old American Jew and nothing like this has happened in my lifetime. In fact, as other American Jews have commented, we had an expectation, which seems naive now, that nothing like this could ever happen in America.

Every day contains new stunning realizations--about once an hour since the election, and in fact all year, something turns out to be so much worse than I would have expected. Among the most stunning of these is the spectacle of Jewish people lining up to defend Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, and insisting there is no anti-Semitism in the environment. Nothing quite like that happened in Germany in 1932, as far as I can tell--just a confirmation that conditions are actually worse now than they were then. I had to reach far back into history beyond 1932 to come up with an analogy: in the Middle Ages, Jewish villagers were periodically murdered by their neighbors, during periods of hysteria and blood libels; but far away in the capital, the "court Jews" who loaned money to the king remained safe at most times. What we are seeing, from one point of view, is a mad scramble to be Donald Trump's court Jews.

Looked at another way, not at all inconsistent, many of these people are willing to accept this hatred in exchange for support for Israel--and in so doing, to throw fellow Jews who actually care about the quality of life in America, under the bus. Its shameful and it really isn't going to work out very well. There is material for an essay I hope to write someday about how bad the Israeli state has been for the world's Jews: it has made so many of us primitive, covetous, dishonest and violent, and led us far away from Enlightenment values of tolerance and compassion (which makes it easy not to expect these for ourselves).

Korean deportees

In the department of things that should never happen, and if they do should never be regarded as noraml, Korean Americans adopted as infants are being deported to Korea, a country they have never visited, with which they have no ties, and don't speak the language. This is happening because the families who adopted them needed to file paperwork to naturalize them as American citizens in the 1950's and '60's, and either didn't know or never bothered. Anyone who grew up troubled and racked up a criminal record along the way is being sent to Korea. In an honest, compassionate nation, which we stopped being some time ago, we would withhold deportation for anyone adopted here as an infant. But no: we live in an atmosphere of growing cruelty, and like a frog in slowly heating water, don't even notice.


In the 1990's, I was a big fan of anonymity as a way to encourage and protect freedom of speech, and even wrote a briefing paper on the topic for the Cato Institute, completely unaware that I thereby became a shill for the Koch brothers. Today, the built in anonymity on Twitter is exactly what permits the floods of violent hate speech. In one hopeful but unrealistic scenario, someone founds the counter-Twitter, where anonymity is not permitted, and all the good people move there, leaving the trolls to savage each other on the original platform. A more realistic compromise would be clearer, better-enforced standards on the real Twitter, which include a statement in the user agreement that if you engage in a practice of disseminating hate speech, your real name and address will be divulged at the target's written request.

How the Internet killed democracy

In 1993, a book which I believed and quoted extensively in my own work, Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community, predicted that the Internet would democratize the world. Instead, the very opposite has happened, as thoughtful discussion forums like the Well got pushed out by the 140 characters of Twitter, anonymous hate speech, and fake news. Similar to my idea above of the counter-Twitter, I dream that the good people build a new Internet and design and use it better. Last June, Internet creator Tim Berners-Lee told the New York Times that he was, effectively, looking into ways to do that. Personally, I have a low tech solution: I and 10,000 of my closest friends set up a FIDONet bulletin board network, by-passing the Internet and communicating via dial up, just like the good old days.

The electoral college

Successive waves of popular protest, culminating in the Chartists, finally extended the British franchise to the common man, overcoming the old system of unfair representation. Old Sarum was the most notorious "rotten borough" in England, where a single oligarch got to appoint two members to the House of Commons, at the same time that industrial cities of 20,000 and more people had little or no representation.

The electoral college is morally indistinguishable from the rotten borough system: both serve to disenfranchise less wealthy people in cities. If America pulls out of its current dive--I am not hopeful-- ending the electoral college will be one of the needed reforms.