December 2015
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

Billionaire World

The octopus-like Koch Brothers, who alone seem to justify the worst paranoia and conspiracy-theorism ever experienced by the disenfranchised, are now actively trying to recruit Latino-Americans to their cause. In recent years, I have become ever more conscious of the fact that power hierarchies, which include governments, churches, and political parties, separate into two rough categories. A minority offer you full equality of opportunity, for which the price of admission is thinking like them (the Catholic Church is still a leading example). Many more are actively, in the dying vestiges of democracy, trying to win needed support from you by tricking you into opposing your own interests. The success of the Koch brothers and their radical right ilk has been to convince many downwardly mobile Americans to vote against the very jobs, mortgages and health care they badly need, frequently by getting them focused on “false gods” such as liberty interests (your freedom NOT to have insurance), abortion and the Second Amendment. Thoreau wrote about this trick when in Walden he described the frenetic excitement about building a metaphoric railroad which will carry us all somewhere amazing, in no time, for free. When the smoke clears, “a few are riding, and the rest are run over”. While you can betray the interests of your class and rise through many hierarchies, the Koch Brothers have no intention of delivering any reward: when American civilization falls and they board a Gulfstream jet to fly to New Zealand, they will not save a seat on the plane for you.


A billionaire, Bruce Rauner, has purchased not only the governorship of Illinois but also much of the political infrastructure. We already experienced this erasure of the public-private distinction in New York City during the Bloomberg years (we are in the avant garde of all of the worst as well as the best of human creations). The Koch Brothers would have you believe that this leads to an enlightened, entrepreneurial world in which there will be no want (the beautiful railroad). I think it is a direct pathway back to a medieval world of barons and serfs.

Planned Parenthood

If you think that Koch Brothers rhetoric and similar language is ineffective, examine the phenomenon that an organization as mainstream in its presence and goals as Planned Parenthood has been so successfully painted as marginal and radical that loners with guns are shooting up offices and killing whomever they find there. When I was a teenager, all the girls at Midwood High School made the pilgrimage to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Coney Island to obtain birth control pills and a tutorial in how to use them. These were stable, intelligent young women who wanted to have a reasonable and balanced sex life without the danger of teenage motherhood; some are now university professors. What is concealed in all this howling about “killing babies” is a strong ideological subtext that women are not equal, but have an obligation to men and society to reproduce. I plan to write a lead essay about this soon (possibly also a Supreme Court amicus brief) but will say that there is a powerful contradiction when the right argues that a man with a gun has the right to stand his ground against an unarmed teenage neighbor, but no woman may stand hers against an unwanted fetus.


Further on the topic of the destructive right wing: The report that Marco Rubio inserted some language in a recent law which will gut Obamacare makes me highly pessimistic for the first time that the law (which is the only way I could find affordable insurance in my home state) will survive, despite being upheld twice by the Supremes. Rubio’s unnoticed language denies federal subsidies to struggling insurance companies and coops, which have already started closing their doors, allowing the Republicans to blame Obamacare for failures they are themselves causing. Shame on the President and us that he felt forced to fashion this insanely complex structure, instead of the far simpler but toxicized single payer, in which all bills are sent to the government. How do you preserve a law against a majority of Congress determined to destroy it? That’s a really tough row to hoe. The radical divisiveness of the politics on the issue is evident in the fact no one will admit that people like me will be left, by the millions, without insurance. When I went on a right wing website in a naive attempt to invite the anti crowd to reason together, I was met by vituperation and threats, and by people calling me a liar for my statement that my Obamacare insurance was $100 a month less expensive, and included much more hospitalization, than my previous coverage.


Justice Scalia’s remarks during the oral argument in the University of Texas affirmative action case reveal a terrible sea change happening in American public thought. He said: “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well.” Note that he didn't even say "some"; by simple grammatic logic,Scalia communicated that he thinks all African Americans are too stupid to attend UT. Did Justice Thomas have no inward, deeply secret, reaction to these words? Merely ten years ago, government officials and people in prestigious professions who thought like Scalia would not have said so publicly. His statement is obviously, grossly racist; the fact that he felt safe uttering it publicly suggests that we are, as a nation, casting off Enlightenment values, something the right has wanted, well, since the Enlightenment. Empirically, I wonder if Scalia's eyes are even open, or does he see only what ideology dictates, which makes him stupid. I've met many African American people smarter than me, including three software developers with graduate degrees in quantum physics. I am intelligent with words (thank God for the concept of multiple intelligences) but far too stupid mathematically to be a skilled programmer, let alone a physicist. We are at the end of a phase where inequality was reinstituted without ever speaking of it; now it is apparently acceptable, in Scalia's world, to speak inequality again, in words which could not be clearer.

Donald Trump

Scalia paves the way for Donald Trump, actually provides covering fire for his populist racism. The best way to understand Trump: he is a modern day Father Coughlin, who appealed to millions of Americans with a kind of homely rhetoric of which Trump’s is evocative--we are the Good People, and there are Others out there trying to eat our lunch, to take away all we have. So let’s unite around fighting them, do whatever is necessary, including building walls against Mexicans, beating up black protesters, and rocketing Arab countries back into the Stone Age.


At Thanksgiving, I talked with a distant in-law who blogs about publishing, and asked a question which had been on my mind: was I correct in thinking that, though world population has doubled in my life time, books sell about the same numbers as before? She said that yes, 20,000 copies is still a first rate sale for a new author. In a world of almost seven billion people, that's a microscopic number. I may have upset her by blurting out a reflection that there may come a point at which the New York Times decides its no longer profitable to have a Sunday book review section. That and the even more intellectual New York Review of Books are in service to an extraordinarily tiny slice of humanity, and not even today a particularly influential one.

Woodrow Wilson’s reputation

Writing the Spectacle, and in some research and writing I have been doing on the history of free speech, I have become hyper-aware how Official Narratives are constructed. One of the worst I discovered is the liberal reputation of Woodrow Wilson, a stone racist and despotic censor. During his presidency, black people were fired from government jobs, and a wide variety of dissenters, including Suffragettes, Socialists, Wobblies, and people who suspiciously refused to buy war bonds, were targets of federal prosecutions, as well as of lynchings and beatings to which the government turned a blind eye. In my estimation, Wilson is the second most evil President after Nixon, but history remembers him somehow as a benign liberal Democrat. This became evident a few weeks ago, when students at Princeton called for the Wilson School to be renamed because of his racism, and aggrieved letter writers to the Times seemed completely unaware of the Palmer raids, the Chicago mass prosecution of Wobblies, the “flag-kissing” mobs, or the Suffragettes beaten by soldiers and sailors right outside the White House, then illegally incarcerated in a Virginia jail where they were force-fed when they refused to eat vermin-infested meals.

Professor Dorothy Bland

Dorothy Bland, an African American professor in Texas, complained about being stopped while jogging in her neighborhood, and the local police, whose chief is African American, released a dashboard video in support of their rejoinder that the stop was not racist. Bland has since been targeted by (right wing) rage and vituperation, and there have been calls for her school to fire her. The video is a fascinating document. A hundred yards or so ahead of the vehicle, you first see Bland, in old work out clothing, waving her arms rather unusually as she runs. The two courteous, old school, white male cops tell her that she is running on the wrong side, and too far out in the street, and wearing a headset so she can’t hear traffic, that someone called 911 to report she had almost been hit by a vehicle. Then, without transition, and with the same courtesy, they ask for her ID. She has none, so they request her name and birthday. She has already said she lives in the neighborhood and is a professor. What is left out of what the police department released, or at least what I saw, is the transcript of the 911 call which very likely, given American experience, was to report someone the caller did not believe belonged in the neighborhood. The video also either did not capture the conversation the cops themselves were having when they pulled over, or it was deleted. The cops who stopped Bland are far more professional and careful than those in other incidents of brown-skinned people stopped while exercising in their own neighborhoods, like Sureshbai Patel, a 57 year old Indian man slammed to the ground by a cop in Madison, Alabama last February. But its still a racist incident, as there is no visible probable cause to ask for her ID or name, other than her skin and her understandable anger at being stopped.

Route 81

I drive to Syracuse regularly for some criminal defense work. A phenomenon which enrages en route is the sign at the side of the highway promising food. Some of the time, the advertised restaurants are immediately off the exit ramp. Sometimes they are miles away, without any additional signage telling you how to find them. On my last trip, hungry, in darkness, I got off at four exits before finding anything to eat. In one case, I could see the restaurant on the north side of the highway as I exited to the south, but there was no roundabout and no obvious way to get there. Highway signs imply that food is no more than a half mile away, not that you are taking a half hour or longer detour to be fed.


Dorothy Parker said, “If you have nothing nice to say about anybody, come and sit by me”. The name of this column recognizes its complaining tone, that I am ragging on people and picking bones. Here is a very rare compliment and, even stranger, about a large corporation (and no, its unsolicited and not paid for). Geico is that rare company that exhibits actual competence at its job in a world in which competence is no longer even a criterion of corporate success. Unlike health insurers who make the process as mystifying as possible and look for every excuse to deny coverage, after an accident Geico sends someone in to inspect your car within a day or two and cuts you a check for fair value a day or two later. The rare company with an excuse to brag, I enjoy Geico's ironic, funny television ads, which communicate their expertise precisely by down-playing it. An ad running now portrays an obnoxious Peter Pan attending a reunion, detested by his elderly classmates (“You don’t look a day over 70! Am I right?”) Its one of a series portraying people who supposedly know how to do something well, and then drawing the parallel that Geico is also expert, but the message plays against itself because the Peter Pan portrayed actually does not know how to stay young gracefully. The message is therefore, we are so humble we must be great, which works really well for Geico. The ad is also a mini-movie you can, unlike most ads, watch a few times and discover new details. On about a tenth viewing I noticed that Tinkerbelle is chasing the servers with the hors-doeuvres. Geico does have some limits: they also offer renters’ insurance but turned down my application for a Brooklyn Heights apartment on the grounds I lived too close to water.