December 10, 2017
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

Sexual Harassment

As a lifelong man, I don't actually like men that much. Working or socializing with them, I often sense a crackly little testosterone fog in the air, of competitive resentment, entitlement and self-righteousness. A male college friend is not someone who will travel halfway across the country if you are in trouble, but someone who wonders if he can get your dorm room and girlfriend if you die. And so forth.

Still, as someone who inhabits a fairly isolated social circle, I was shocked by how prevalent, dominant and unpunished the Harvey Weinsteins of the world were, all these generations after Betty Friedan. A strange sidelight to all this, not the most important one, is how tacky, cheesy, infantile power is.

I am disheartened by our long tolerance of brutality and insanity in powerful people, and hope it is really coming to an end in our society. Perhaps one moral here is how eagerly we advance narratives of equality, and seize opportunities for inequality (Harvey Weinstein presenting himself as a feminist, posing with Hillary Clinton, etc.)

Me in politics

For a few years in the 1970's, I thought I wanted to run for office. A watershed moment for me occurred in 1976, when I was working in the Morris Udall presidential campaign. Someone rather cheesily asked me if I, or another college student, was the right person to embark on a certain project. I spent ten minutes telling her why I would do a better job--and I hated who I was in that moment.

In the last few years, I took an interest in local politics where I live, and for a while attended every Town Board meeting. Nobody could understand that I was there because I thoroughly enjoy local democracy in action, and a couple of elected officials asked, rather nervously I thought, whether I was planning to run. I answered that I think I'm quite unelectable, largely because of The Ethical Spectacle, which is packed with the kinds of gems which opposition researchers salivate to find: "As a lifelong man, I don't actually like men that much"....

The Monty Python bridge

In a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, knights trying to cross a precarious stone bridge are each asked a question. If they answer it correctly, they may cross; if they err, they are instantaneously killed by an explosion. One knight dies when he gives the wrong answer to "What's your favorite color?"

For almost my whole life time, we have witnessed the Monty Python bridge phenomenon in our politics: someone makes one insanely dumb comment and resigns office after a public and media shitstorm one week later. Most of the time, I wasn't too troubled, because they seemed like bad people who more or less had it coming, like Earl Butz, Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, who was forced to quit in 1976 after telling an egregiously racist joke. However, there is a problem of social continuity and the development of rule-sets when careers can end in a moment of anger or panic, without any actual changes being adopted. The Earl Butz incident has probably not decreased the number of racist jokes told by people in power (though it has probably caused more of them to exercise caution about who is in the room).

I noticed reading Balzac that, in his nineteenth century world of French elites, everyone commits adultery, but, at least once in every novel, an adulterous couple is exposed and socially destroyed. That contributed to an insight I had many years ago, that most enterprises seem to require a human sacrifice from time to time. When someone gets ceremonially fired from a corporation as the scapegoat for a scandal, everyone else is relieved, though nothing has changed. Voltaire famously said, commenting on the British execution of an admiral who lost a battle, that such acts are good for "encouraging the others".

Given the media machine, and the 24 hour news cycle, the pace of human sacrifices has picked up, to the point where we seem to require one a week, if not every day. This is not to excuse Earl Butz or Al Franken, but I would like (as some women have said this week too), to see more of a process, and one tied to actual societal change, before we make people walk the plank.

Al Franken

I so badly wanted to like him when he first won office, yet he always seemed a bit stone-faced and creepy. As a child, I discovered I had better radar than my parents did, when guests came to the house who were dishonest or predatory. I still have that radar, apparently. I am always amazed by the continued success and prominence, of people, particularly men, in our culture, whose faces actually radiate corruption, like, for example, Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump. Harvey Weinstein too.

Another thing I want to say about Franken, and this is an element to which we are not paying sufficient attention amidst the general waves of righteous indignation, is that there is a huge reliance factor. We count on the people we elect, or we should be able to count on them, to be solid, to honor our commitment to them. People whose private lives will cause Monty Python bridge explosions should know better than to run for office, and if not, the people around them who are aware of their problems shouldn't let them, work for them, or give them donations. To Al Franken: Dude, we needed you badly right now, and you fucking did a backflip out the window.

The wedding cake case

This is a hard one, representing one of the worst collisions yet between two deeply revered constitutional tenets, free speech and equality. But it can be resolved by the same rule-sets we have already developed. I have an unassailable First Amendment right to publish, or read Hustler magazine. I do not have the right to hang the pin-up in my office and call female employees in to look at it. The first is speech, the second discriminatory action.

The wedding cake case is different, but still can be solved the same way.The defendants and counsel have seized on an immensely sympathetic free speech trope, of forced speech. The basic concept is that government cannot force people to say words they don't believe. This comes up most often these days in cases where states legislate scripts which doctors are required to read. Most have involved forced utterances about sanctity of human life and the fetal heartbeat, to women considering abortion. There is a case out of California today in which anti-abortion clinics are being required to explain the availability of abortion.

It is not a huge hop from the ban on forced speech to the precept that the First Amendment bars forced artistic expression. Imagine a law that every third statue created by a professional sculptor should be a bust of the President, or represent a patriotic scene. (Barely relevant story, but irresistible: A Renaisance painter got himself in trouble once for painting a dog in a scene of the Last Supper. He solved the problem by saying, "OK, its not the Last Supper".) The baker-defendant is claiming that forcing him to make a cake with a rainbow motif and the names of two men is like forcing that sculptor to make a statue of Donald Trump.

It isn't. The difference is that the professional sculptor is in a business where she makes stuff and if people like it, they buy it. It is a one off, not a commodity business. The baker's business is more focused on serving your baking, or wedding baking, needs. We don't have "sculpture needs" in the same way. The professional sculptor is allowed to be exclusive; she probably doesn't work on commission in the first place. Her communication with the public is, "I will only sell a sculpture to you, and you and you"--people who can afford it. The baker's message is, "I will sell a wedding cake to everyone who asks, except you."

The baker may have obtained certain public licenses to be in business. The state is entitled to condition these licenses on certain tenets that customers will be treated equally. Even if there is no license involved, the First Amendment steps back and equal protection laws step forward because of the action element. Hanging a sign on your house, "I don't like Jews", is protected. But you can't hang a sign "No Jews allowed" in your store, because refusing to sell to a class of people is action, not speech.

There is no resolution I can think of which allows the baker to refuse the cake, but does not lead to the "No Jews Allowed" sign in the store.

Net neutrality

The Internet we once saw as a new haven for free speech, democracy and equality has come to almost nothing; even the Web's creator, Tim Berners-Lee, sees that. It has been captured by huge global corporations and used to monitor us for the purpose of selling us products. The personal web site on which you published thoughtful 2,000 word essays (like the Ethical Spectacle, my dinosaur, founded January 1995), has devolved to Twitter's 140 characters of appallingly dumb sloganeering. The repeal of net neutrality is merely the last, obvious, necessary step in that killing.

The solution is to make a new Internet they don't control--and set up better rules to make sure they can't capture that one too. In the 1980's, I was involved with a group of sysops of Fidonet bulletin board systems--I know that must sound to some like a phrase in a foreign language. Gang, if you're still out there, how about updating that software? It can be the backbone of a new, egalitarian, noncommercial, human-moderated system, Internet II. Tim Berners-Lee will approve.

Reprinted almost without comment

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on upcoming elections in Zimbabwe: "The United States strongly supports a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous Zimbabwe. As events unfold, we continue to call on all parties to exercise restraint and respect constitutional and civilian order.....Whatever short-term arrangements the government may establish, the path forward must lead to free and fair elections.".

Hmmm, could that happen here?

The chimes at midnight

There is a poignant scene in Henry IV, Part II in which old men are reminiscing, aware their world is ending:

Ha, cousin Silence, that thou hadst seen that that this knight and I have seen! Ha, Sir John, said I well?

We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.

That we have, that we have, that we have; in faith, Sir John, we have...

I had my own Falstaff moment last week, thinking about all the whales I have seen in offshore trips in New York, Massachusetts, California, and Alaska; finbacks, humpbacks, grays, minkes, a sperm whale, and orcas. Also Atlantic white-sided, bottlenose and spinner dolphins. As we enter the sixth great extinction in the history of the planet, there are other things I saw forty years ago which are already dying or gone, like the huge coral heads on which I scuba dived in Florida and the Caribbean.

My version of the Falstaff line : We have seen the whales.

Incidentally, Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight, which consists of the Falstaff material extracted from both halves of Henry IV, is the best Shakespeare movie ever made.