Culling the herd

Sheldon-Silver

I seldom have much use for prosecutors, but like a stopped clock, perhaps they can be right twice a day. The most unspeakable politician in New York(*), Sheldon Silver, shown above, has just been indicted on a lengthy list of corruption charges by the somewhat uncle-Festerish Preet Bharara, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, shown below.

Preet-Bharara

Old Shellie has been mentioned here before, but it would require a thick book, written perhaps by Evelyn Waugh, to do anything like justice to his Lord Of Misrule decades running the New York state assembly, and forming one of the troika that run the state. (The other two are the governor and the state senate majority leader. Legislative districts in New York are so precisely gerrymandered that the senate nearly always has a Republican majority and the Assembly a democratic one. There is in fact honor among thieves.)

Shellie, of course, is a Democrat. Just sayin’.

It seems quite unlikely that the legislature will be “cleaned up” by prosecutorial smash-and-grab raids like this, amusing though they are. At any rate I don’t expect it. I imagine that the legislature will continue to be run on the current bought-and-paid-for basis for the foreseeable future. And I imagine that the prosecutors will continue to swoop in from time to time, seize some hapless plump grazer in Albany’s lush pastures, and hold an eclatant press conference.

This is, of course, good for the prosecutors and their political ambitions. It may even be good for the Legislature. Culling the herd, you might say.

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(*) Or maybe the second-most. Governor Andrew Cuomo is a very strong contender, and one can only hope that he and Shellie will someday be cellmates and have a lot of time to argue the point between themselves.

St Charlie

coran

Voltaire, who was perhaps the most distinguished French Islamophobe since Charles Martel, and the only one, ever, with any charm, once said that if God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent Him. The same might be said about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Whether it was really spontaneous, or some ginned-up police provocation, hardly matters. It’s been a brilliant success.

In the name of vague and unexamined notions like “free speech” and “satire”, all kinds of ordinarily reasonable, skeptical, good-hearted people have enlisted in the Clash of Civilizations, on behalf of the folks who published the charming image above, shortly after the Egyptian military coup of 2013.

It’s extraordinarily depressing now to listen in on the chatter of people I usually respect and admire. This one somehow got them where they lived, and while they would no doubt deplore — retrospectively — the uses of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, or the Reichstag fire, or the Zimmermann telegram, or remember-the-Maine, they’ve swallowed this latest one hook, line and sinker.

Who was that wiseacre who observed that the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history? I’m afraid he got it right.

Below, another product of French enlightenment.

burqa

Charlie? Moi, non

je-ne-suis-pas-charlie

Nobody should have to die just because he’s an asshole. Talk about a holocaust. But Charlie Hebdo was a nasty bigoted shitrag, and I for one decline to join the stampede of righteous indignation — as if some great principle, like free speech for example, were at stake here.

Let’s start with that concept, actually. There is no such thing as free speech, never has been, and probably shouldn’t be. If I walk into a bar and inform the first plug-ugly I see that his mom was recently laid off from a house of ill repute, I’m likely to get pounded for my pains, and quite right too. If the Charlie massacre suggests to smug complacent humorists softly ensconced behind the police lines of the First World that they can’t rely on impunity if they make fun of lesser breeds’ religion, well then, perhaps the Carlists will not have died in vain. I hope Richard Dawkins is holed up in a secure undisclosed location somewhere, quavering like a Victorian soprano, and sporting a false beard and a turban.

We’ve been hearing a lot about the intrinsic charm and value of something called “satire”, as if it were all of a piece. Dean Swift wrote satire, and so did Der Sturmer, a satirical publication much given, like Charlie, to cartoons featuring big noses and bushy eyebrows(*). We can still read the one with pleasure and intense enthusiasm, but the other is pretty distressing. Perhaps the value of satire depends in part on who is being satirized, and why. Perhaps it even depends on who’s enjoying it. There are people with whom I would not care to share even a harmless taste — fly-fishing, say.

Of course what complicates the picture in the case of C-Hebdo is the strong whiff of provocateurism the thing gives off. When something is too good to be true, it probably isn’t.

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(*) Its editor, Julius Streicher, was hanged at Nuremberg. So much for free speech.

What goes around, comes around

eric garner

The cops kill, and kill, and kill; and finally a couple of ‘em get killed. There’s been much tear-shedding as a result, but my own eyes are bone dry, dry as the vertebrae of some ancient fossil reptile.

I know nothing of Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, the collateral damage in this case, except that they were cops. This fact strongly prejudices me against them; but prejudice is merely prejudice, and it must be disregarded. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that Wenjian and Rafael were, as individuals, dear good people; mild and harmless to one and all. New York City chews up and spits out dozens or hundreds of such good people every day. We ought to mourn them all, but we don’t: and I don’t think we should make an exception for cops. In fact I think we should bend over backwards not to.

Our poor mayor, the hapless, gormless Bill de Blasio, doesn’t agree, and so he finds himself in the hopeless position of conciliating people — namely, the cops — who seek only to make an example of him. The cops are determined to show, once and for all, that it is they who rule New York. De Blasio was insufficiently obsequious to the pork during his campaign — though he really did try — and they will never forgive him.

Indeed, even if he had tried harder, it is the nature of institutions, like tumors, to grow if they can. Not to advance is to fall back. No matter how much the mayor grovels, the cops must always press for more, more, more.

Okay, you gave us Bratton. Fuck you very much. More!

I think de Blasio must really be as big a fool as he appears, unlikely as that may seem. I do believe he really thinks there’s a line he can walk here, a difference he can split, a meeting of the minds he can somehow effectuate, if he’s only nice and sensitive enough.

His latest grovel is a pathetic appeal to “demonstrators” to shut the fuck up and go home. He didn’t say it quite that way, of course; but that’s what it comes to. He didn’t tell the cops to go home, naturally, or even suggest that it might be a good idea to shoot and strangle members of the citizenry a bit less often. No, it’s the “demonstrators” who are the problem; they’re the people who ought to go home.

Even people who are less mutton-headed than de Blasio — people I know personally! — are still hag-ridden by the fetish of even-handedness, and feel committed to the imbecility of moral equivalence. Yes, it was bad to kill Eric Garner, but it was just as bad to kill the two cops. Twice as bad, in fact, since there were two of them.

Much is left aside in this view. The cops were killed by a poor loon operating without institutional backup. The poor loon had nobody to call on the radio if the gig didn’t go down as expected; and there was no way the DA would whitewash him, as that useful police adjutant did in the case of the cops who strangled Eric Garner. The loon was at least rational enough to grasp these facts, and rational enough to remove himself from the sublunary world before he could be made an example of. You might say that he appealed to a higher court and balked the lower.

I dunno about the morality, but there’s certainly no equivalence.

I’m trying to imagine the poor loon’s frame of mind after having failed (fortunately) to kill his girlfriend. Here again he seems to have been rational enough to realize that it was all over for him; the only thing left was to choose how to play his last scene. His choices were sharply limited.

The choice he made was by no means a random one. He could have gunned down some arbitrarily-chosen people, as despairing men so often do. Or he could have lain in wait for a mayor, or a senator, or a president, all of ‘em popular targets.

But he didn’t. Instead, he chose cops; and not just any cops, but New York cops, the police-state gold standard. And he made a weary drive from Baltimore to Brooklyn in order to enact his final script.

(Like a real New Yorker, I wonder: Did he take the Verrazano? Only the MTA knows for sure.)

In every madness there is a method. Demented assassins seem to go for whoever appears to be in charge — the aforementioned presidents, governors, senators, mayors, etc. But our poor loon went for the cops.

Perhaps his reasoning powers weren’t entirely unimpaired, and there’s something we — and Bill de Blasio — can learn from him, to wit: that so far as daily life is concerned — the quotidian experience of the ordinary man and woman — it really is the cops who are in charge. All the doughfaced emperors on the coinage are mere figureheads, and it’s the Praetorian Guard who are really running the show.

The white whale

whaleboat

For the last two nights — ever since the most recent whitewash, this one in the case of Eric Garner — the skies above my neighborhood have been full of the maddening, monotonous thrum of hovering police helicopters. In one way, I suppose, it’s a good sign. It shows they’re scared of us. And well they may be. The sins of this guilty land, to borrow my man John Brown’s phrase, remain unexpiated. When the dam finally breaks — and oh my God, may I live to see it — the thin blue line will abandon its lethal toys and shed its uniforms and call out to the hills, Cover us!

I happened to pick up from my disorganized shelf an old tattered falling-apart copy of Moby-Dick tonight — I had carefully written the date on the flyleaf: May 1, 1977.

(I don’t do that anymore. Too many books have come and gone.)

It’s a very remarkable book, and if you haven’t read it lately, I recommend it. People talk about the Great American Novel, but it’s been written; case closed. There may be some doubt whether Moby-Dick or Huckleberry Finn is it; but one way or the other, no American writer is ever going to beat either of these, and in fact the sooner the category of ‘American writer’ becomes archaeological, the better.

Moby-Dick is a much better book than this guilty land deserves to have produced. Lit-crit thumbsuckers love to read it, somehow, as an allegory of the Amurrican project; but if it’s an allegory of anything, it’s an allegory of something much more important than this blighted slaveocracy’s lamentable history, the sooner done with and forgotten, the better.

On the other hand, it is, undeniably, a very Amurrican book. Only this country, in its early years, before the radical fatality became so obvious, could have produced it: back when the curse and the promise seemed to hang in the balance.

The curse won, of course. As we all now know, who have eyes to see.

A few hundred years hence, the only good thing posterity will be able to say about us is that we produced Herman Melville, and Mark Twain, and a few others. Edith Wharton, I’m sure, will still give the kind of pleasure Jane Austen gives; and John Singer Sargent will still delight.

Even the Visigoths did better; but let’s console ourselves as best we can. Our nation was a suppurating chancre on the face of the earth. But we weren’t all bad.

Home sweet home

ferguson

I had a somewhat unexpected occasion to spend a few days in France last week, and came home a couple of days before the Ferguson grand jury whitewashed — I use the word advisedly — yet another murderer in a squad car.

France is by no means a paradise, and there are plenty of crazy people there. But I must say that even so, the US looks very bad by comparison.

We are surely the second-craziest(*) people on Earth. And this is an amazingly badly-run country, too.

There is a notion, widespread among Usonians, even those who should know better, that France and Italy are slow, sloppy, inefficient and so on.

I have no idea what this idea is based upon, apart from people repeating what they have heard other people say. But in my experience the food is better, the trains are nicer, the streets are cleaner and the motorists are less demented there, in the bad degenerate Old World, than here in the New. The people are generally better-looking, too, and almost always better-dressed.

Why are we so fucked up? In particular, what’s up with this hobby we have of shooting down unarmed young black men?

Is it that we palefaces still hate black people so much? Or is it that we love cops so much? (Not mutually exclusive, of course).

We’re apt to deploy the term ‘racism’ reflexively, and we’re surely not wrong about that — not entirely wrong, anyway. Though it does seem to me that the beast has evolved in the last fifty years or so. It may in fact now be a different species of beast, though it’s still pretty beastly.

Does the existing order still need racism to prop it up? It’s not clear to me that that’s so. We recently found a handsome brown-skinned chap to command the Death Star for eight years, and the business of America — namely, slaughter — seems to have gone forward very much as usual. Oprah bestrides the book trade — and pity the poor book trade. Eric Holder; what more do I have to say? I don’t need to mention Clarence Thomas, do I?

I wonder whether racism nowadays isn’t a consequence of American inequality rather than a precondition of it. I wonder whether the police are so numerous and well-armed that they have to shoot somebody every so often — after all, it’s why they joined up in the first place — and it’s still just that little bit easier to shoot a young black guy than a young white guy.

If that’s so, then which would be better: persuading the pigs to be equal-opportunity shooters, or making it more difficult for them to shoot anybody at all — by disarming them, say? Or even better, by disarming them, laying them off, and forcing them to find honest employment like the rest of us — or rather, not find honest employment, as the rest of us increasingly cannot?

Thought experiment, of course; it’ll never happen. The American ship of state has its tiller lashed down: we’ll keep piling on the police, building the prisons, shooting the black guys, and so on, until the keel hits the rocks.

Bring on the fucking rocks, I say.

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(*) Israelis, of course, take the gold, and have done for some time now.

The results are most definitely in…

donkey_in_air_wjhgb

… and it would appear that being slightly less bad than the other guy is not a compelling elevator pitch.

I don’t think anybody mentioned the midterm elections in my hearing — my physical hearing, that is, in the 3D world — but all my friends were tearing up Facebook about it. This seems appropriate, since Facebook is the Valhalla of the inconsequential.

I actually know people who voted in New York, for Heaven’s sake, and not even for Howie Hawkins. They’re being secretive about who they did vote for, but I bet it was that Lovecraftian tentacle-faced monster Andrew Cuomo. I’m sure they did it on one of the sockpuppet lines — Working Families or the other one, the women one, and no doubt this gambit will have appeared to send some kind of message.

In fact it does send a message, but not, perhaps, the one intended. The message Cuomo and his ilk will have heard is that there are a few gulls who require an extra layer of candy-coating, and that this is easily supplied.

On the boat the other day I heard on the radio — our local NPR affiliate, of course — a rather genteel mud-rassle between a representative of the Working Families Party and another from the other one, the women party. Both spokespersons, as it happens, were women, so although the Woman Card was played relentlessly, it sounded like a tie to me, after a rather dull, listless bout. Even the mud seemed bored, and volunteered only the most perfunctory sucking sounds. And neither of the contenders seemed to give a shit, really.

Both of them agreed that Cuomo was a deplorable person — or no, that’s not quite right. What they seemed to agree on was that Cuomo was two people, a nice Andy and a nasty Andy, and although we have only seen Nasty Andy since he was inaugurated, Nice Andy is still barely alive, though deeply sedated, somewhere in the Cuomo brainstem. Both sockpuppets promised to bring back Nice Andy by — guess what? — “holding Cuomo’s feet to the fire”.

This is a very popular phrase among Democratic Party fellow-travelers, and of all the wolf tickets one has ever been offered, it requires the deepest discounting — on a par with Confederate bonds, really.

The Workaday Women’s party or parties in fact have no fire, and wouldn’t light one if they could, and they have no grip on anybody’s feet. If they were ever in a position to spoil an election for a Democrat, and willing to do so, this feet-to-the-fire trope might have some plausibility. But they obviously are not able, or willing, to do that, so feet and fire will never meet.

I remain astonished at the need people feel to vote. I can only conclude that it’s some sort of superstitious practice, like carrying a rabbit’s foot. Quite invulnerable to reason.

The greatest American white guy

m4s0n501

john_brown

A friend of mine reminds me that today, October 16, is the 155th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. My friend says he’s the greatest white guy ever, which is maybe a stretch, depending on how you define ‘white’. But there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s the greatest American white guy ever. No contest. Nobody else even close.

Whenever I’m in the Adirondacks I make a point of detouring to North Elba and laying some flowers on Old Osawatomie’s grave, in the farmstead where he lived before he went to join the immortals. It’s an evocative place: rather bare and windswept, with a distant prospect of the ancient High Peaks. Though it’s quite near horrible touristy Lake Placid, you can still get a sense of what it must have been like in his day — that hard denuded historyless American landscape, the fruit of a recent genocide. God’s unwinking eye above, and a blank slate all around. And yet beneath your feet the lifegiving earth and the sense it imparts that history isn’t over; that seeds are germinating under the windswayed grass, and old moles are digging, unimpaired by age. It’s a haunted spot — haunted in the best possible way, by a ghost who wishes only to introduce us to our better selves.

By force, if necessary. And it probably is necessary. We’re creatures of darkness, and we hate the light even as we desire it.

Thoreau had some eloquent words to say about him:

For once we are lifted out of the trivialness and dust of politics into the region of truth and manhood. No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man, and the equal of any and all governments. He needed no babbling lawyer, making false issues, to defend him. He was more than a match for all the judges that American voters, or office-holders of whatever grade, can create. He could not have been tried by a jury of his peers, because his peers did not exist.

Interesting, innit, that the greatest American white guy — the guy who does us more credit than all the sorry figures on our coinage — has no public buildings, or highways, or naval vessels named after him. The fact is, we still haven’t caught up with him. Will we ever?

Facelessbook

mark-zuckerberg

There’s been some discussion lately on my Lefty mailing lists about what they call “social media”. There was a brief flurry of interest in something called “Ello”, apparently marketed as the hipster version of facebook, with a very cool minimalist UI and a very vaguely-worded commitment not to monetize your personal information. It didn’t last long enough for me to check it out.

More generally, we were all wondering how to disentangle the benefits of commercial social media — like facebook — from their obvious harms: the data mining, the marketing. The puppies.

The benefits can’t be entirely dismissed. I’ve found people on facebook with whom I’m glad to be back in touch, and whom it would have been difficult, in the actually existing world, to find in any other way. On the other hand I’ve had “friend” requests from people who seemed respectable — went to the same school, had a couple dozen “friends” in common — and turned out to be awful pests. It’s surprising how upset one can be when one of these people rounds on you and bites you in the neck — as if they were real friends, rather than pixelated shadows. One is tempted to invoke notions like “illusion of community”.

Of course in one sense all communities are illusory; they’re constituted by categorization. You are my neighbor, or you aren’t. I get to decide.

Much Lefty thinking boils down to the question: How would we do this under socialism? What would the socialist subway fare be? What would a socialist facebook be like? Could you even have social media without ad revenue, or VC’s who are hoping for ad revenue? Hey, who’s gonna pay all those coders without it?

Along the same line, one is (once again) tempted to suggest that facebook is the solution that our kind of society offers to a problem that our kind of society creates. Perhaps a different kind of society wouldn’t need facebook or anything like it.

Meanwhile, I see it in much the same light as the highway system. I don’t think there’s anything historically inevitable about mass automobilization. There’s no need to like it; and any rational person hates driving. Driving is not only a bore, it’s bad for people’s character. The same could be said about facebook. What would socialist interstate highways look like? Overgrown ruins, let’s hope (though who knows?).

But occasionally one gets into the car, rather reluctantly, and commits oneself to the Merritt Parkway or the Major Deegan, simply because it’s the least inconvenient way of doing something one needs to do. Along the way one will encounter any number of assholes, because the activity itself encourages assholery. But after a few hours of deep boredom interspersed with moments of active disagreeableness, one will, with luck, find oneself in some place one wants to be.

This is as close as I can get to being what they call “realistic”.

Crescat scientia, vita excolatur

science_teacher

I have a friend, a fella whom I’ve known for years, whom I like and admire, and who went to the great climate march recently. Let’s call him Homo Sapiens.

Sapiens put a picture of himself on his Facebook page — yes, I admit it, I still do Facebook. He was carrying a placard, printed out in the approved 350.org color scheme, that read, “Teach science!”

Now the pedant in me immediately wondered, what the hell is “science”? Last I heard, there were only sciences: physics, chemistry, herpetology and so on. Grand unification seems to be some ways off. But this wonderment rapidly gave way to another: What the hell was my old pal Sap doing saying such a thing?

He’s a smart guy, but his education was purely literary; he doesn’t know the first thing about any science. I doubt that he could tell you what the law of gravitation really says, or how Copernicus was right and how he was wrong, or the relationship between a watt and a volt, or what was interesting about Darwin’s finches. “Teach science?” Nobody ever taught Sap any science at all, and he wouldn’t have taken to it if they had tried.

I’m afraid that what old Sap meant, by holding up this placard, was something which could be unpacked more or less as follows:

There are all these stupid benighted people out there who think that the world was created day before yesterday, who don’t believe in evolution, whatever the hell that is, or in global warming. These people have a bad belief system. It needs to be replaced with a good belief system. Like… science! Teachers, do your thing! Students, listen to your teachers! Parents, shut the fuck up and leave it to the professionals!

The problem here is that what makes ‘science’ a good thing is that it is not a belief system. Sap, I suspect, thinks that there are people who believe in Genesis and other people who believe in ‘science’ — people mostly rather like himself.

Now there are a number of things wrong with this analogy, starting with the fact that believers in Genesis are quite likely to have read the book at some point, while Sap has certainly never peeked into the Origin of Species, not to mention any technical discussions of atmospheric chemistry.

But even more importantly, it’s apples and oranges. Biblical fundamentalism is a belief system, but science is an activity; a very worthwhile one, whose work product is always and only provisional hypotheses, subject at any time to revision or, for that matter, repudiation. The history of science makes this very clear; but Sapiens knows as little about the history of science as he does about ‘science’ itself.

Science, for real scientists, is a job, something they do; not a faith commitment, a body of dogmata that they believe in. This is precisely what constitutes its appeal and value.

But I’m afraid that what brother Sap means when he says ‘teach science’ is very much a matter of indoctrination. I don’t suppose that Sap cares much whether kids emerge from high school able to explain Avogadro’s number or Planck’s constant. But he would rather they were listening to jolly jokey Neil Degrasse Tyson, retailing his smooth popularized certainties and potted chronicle of progress on NPR, than so some wild man who doesn’t have a degree from a good school and who exhibits an unhealthy interest in the Epistle to the Romans.

Sap’s fideistic attitude toward ‘science’ is highly characteristic of the tribe to which he and I both belong. It’s part of our self-identification: we’re the party of enlightenment and, even more important, of expertise. Sap doesn’t understand the climate scientists’ reasoning; but he believes it, because they’re the duly ordained experts. Teach ‘science’! — but there’s no urgent need to teach any actual sciences. That is to say: teach belief, rather than content or method.

Obligatory disclaimer:

I think the climate-science boys are probably right, though I’m so poorly informed on the subject that I have no right to an opinion. And even if they’re wrong, I wish we’d act on the implications of their hypotheses. I wish we’d rip up all the asphalt and ban the manufacture of cars. I wish that everybody who didn’t live in a shack in the woods, ten miles from the nearest neighbor, lived in an apartment two blocks from a subway line. I wish every roof were covered with solar panels. I wish that air travel were a once-in-a-lifetime experience — if that — and that container ships were propelled by sail power. I wish we had a walloping carbon tax — as long as it’s rebated, on a strict per capita basis, to every man woman and child. All the things we might do in a desperate last-ditch effort against climate change are well worth doing for any number of other reasons — except, except! teaching people to believe the experts.