Friday, October 20, 2017

vista and corner

The American eye expects a vista. We enter the Walmarts, the Target, the Walgreens, the mega-grocery store, and we expect to see the commodities arrayed there like the corn in Oklahoma fields, spread out, flat. We expect the great plains. When we come in, when we look at the goods extending as far as we can see, under one roof, we are pioneers, we are … we are that mythical creature from economics, the sovereign consumer. We see the checkout counter on one side, and we see the staff in their designated shirts doing inventory. We don’t think of that staff as advisors, fellows who have solved our consumer problems, but as walking signposts, to whom we can ask directions.
In France, on the other hand, what confronts us are corners.
Vistas abhor a corner.
Yesterday we went shopping for Adam’s birthday. We have incautiously invited his class to a party, tomorrow, in the park, and  the class responded with a large yes. So now it was time to get little gift bags together, as well as getting Adam his gifts. So we headed to Village JoueClub, which is located in the Passage des Princes, near the Grand Magasins. The Passage turned out to be one of those beautiful 19th century constructs that Walter Benjamin and the Surrealists raved about. The Village JC occupied the whole of it. But here’s the deal – the store was split into several stores, organized by several themes – outdoor games, toys for children under three, etc. – and each of these shops was typically French. That is, at no point were you given the Vista. Rather, you would enter near the counter, and some path would trickle back to a room that would then shoot away at a right or left angle. You would wander among these shelves with the curiosity of city walkers scanning the display windows rather than with the arrow like intentness of pioneers harvesting the prairie.
Against the American vista, the French pit the atelier, the artisan’s shop. To an American, it is a little weird. It feels more like a professional workspace, like a doctor’s office. In a doctor’s office, there are little rooms that seem to branch off from corridors that are doored off from the waiting room. The space is all about being a “patient” – that is, being patient. Patient is a big French word – when you stick your credit card into the machine for such, the screen will tell you to patientez. To bear up, to bear suffering, to endure – such are the etymological roots. It is not something American machines tell you.
Yet, as we all know, the sovereign consumer is a joke, a cardboard king in a kingdom of parity products, cheaply manufactured, quickly running to shabby. The distance from the atelier of manufacture is naturalized in the vista, the false vista, of all those commodities like plants.
But to continue with our story – so we had a great time buying toys at the Village JC. It overflows with trinkets and unfamiliar games, and it confines the legos, blessedly, to one shop. I’m crossing my fingers for the weather to be good tomorrow. I want Adam to be pleased.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


Who wants yesterday’s papers, the Rolling stones sang a long time ago. Then they became yesterday’s papers. And so will all of us.  
However, I’m doubtful about this, as about all other nuggets of Mick Jagger’s wisdom. Myself, I find yesterday’s papers much more interesting than today’s.

One of the great things about the internet – or no, let me go to 11, here, mes amis – the greatest thing about the internet is that it makes archives so instantly available to us. The prestige of the archive is, in part, derived from the fact that it is inaccessible. Archives conjure up the secret police. In fact, after revolutionary acts – such as the storming of the Bastille – everybody wanted to get their hands on the files of the Parisian police. But it wasn’t until late in the 19th century that a scholar, Francois Ravaisson, put them in order.  And now they are available on Gallica and and one can read the testimony of a prostitute named Mlle. July about her whipping sessions with the philosopher Helvetius. 

Of course, this may or may not have been true.  To rely on what the police collect and put in an archive for a factual picture of the world is like relying on the astrology column for proof that the General theory of relativity is valid.
But it is interesting.

 Newspapers, with their tabloid flights and their bourgeois judgments, are also filled with interesting items that may be true, or may be false, or end up somewhere in the wasteland between. But their age gives them a certain interest, if you have that cast of mind, that reading today’s papers lack. Sure, if you want to know what President Dumbass said at his press conference yesterday, then go ahead and read today’s Times. Myself, I think what President Dumbass said at his press conference will be much more interesting fifty years from now. It will have the interest of a mystery. Time will lengthen it – how did such a person become president? This is not, really, a question the news will answer.  It can only pose it. The news can tell you about the weather, but it is not very good at telling you about the climate.

Murders, kidnappings, and high end robberies are very good news items to mull over as time goes by. The newspapers of the 20s and 30s were much more unbuckled about crimes – they were all on the tabloid trail. The front pages  Plus, it was an incredible era of crime.
And, not least, the journalistic trade had not yet been absorbed by the journalistic major. Rather, newsmen very often came up from the street. They came at their stories roughly – pretty much the way their readers read them. The front pages were blessedly short of thumbsucker pieces telling us the meaning of it all. Consequently, front pages tended to look like chocolate boxes full of horrors. This, for instance, is a list of the headlines on the front page of the Madera Tribune, a paper that served the Fresno region in California, for December 31, 1937:
CHINESE PLAN GREAT OFFENSE – Natives Flee from Tsingtao
BLASTS ECHO AS PROPERTY OF JAP RAZED – Vigilante Group Organizes to Prevent Lootings by Chinese
MYSTERY OF LITTLE BOAT TOLD POLICE – Adventurer who Sought to Turn Pirate is Blamed for Death of Two
LOYALISTS ARE TRUSTING FATE TO AMERICANS – Volunteer Battalions Are Rushed to Front Lines to Battle Rebels
Hollywood Celebrities Routed in Raid Exclusive Night Club
Navy Mail Plane Crashes Into Bay
This was a paper to come home to. This is what fascinated millions of eyeballs in the evening, after swatting the kids and going to the icebox for a cold one. I’ve instanced this particular paper because one of the stories – about the “Mystery of the Little Boat” – is about a crime that illustrates the hop, skip, jump way secret histories – like crazy jigsaw puzzles – can amass on the Web. The little boat was an “ill-fated yacht” named Aafje, which was owned by a wealthy Santa Barbara “sportsman”, Dwight L. Faulding. Faulding’s boat was chartered by a man named Jack Morgan, who came aboard with his pregnant, 17 year old wife and a nurse. Also aboard was a photographer who often sailed with Faulding and a guy named George Sternack, described as a “guest”. It turns out that Jack Morgan, having absorbed a number of gangster movies, had decided to make the Aafje into his pirate boat, and to that end he plugged Faulding and threw him into the sea, and terrorized the rest of the passengers.
“It had been Morgan's'plan, since he had no money, to steal his provisions at ports that he passed, or
take them by force as the occasion arose, federal men believed. Apparently he was making foi some south sea island where his wife could give birth to their child with the nurse in attendance.”

Morgan’s plan ended abruptly with Morgan, when Horne and Sernack snuck up behind him and one of them bashed in his head with a marlin spike. Then they threw his body in the drink, and sewed an SOS message to their sails. They drifted and starved, until the SOS was spotted by a plane and the coast card cruiser, Perseus, took them in tow.

The Aafje is an interesting craft to track. I am not the only pursuer, here – others have been on the trail, due to the yacht’s later association with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Some information I have gathered comes from websites devoted to that LSD cult.

After the Faulding murder, the yacht was up for sale. Errol Flynn announced he was buying it, on account of the story of Crazy Jack Morgan. But apparently he did not. Instead, it ended up in the hands of Bob and Evelyn Gaylord, who made a troubled voyage in it in the early sixties. Going from Hawaii to California, they were blown wildly off course and ended up near the Aleutian islands, from whence they limped down the West Coast and docked in San Francisco. The boat was sold at some point to a man named Travis Ashbrook, and here it again enters the annals of crime. Travis Ashbrook was a famous surfer; he was also a famous head. Many of the star surfers on the West Coast were attracted to drugs and selling drugs, and, in true sixties fashion, they formed a drug commune that they named The Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Ashbrook was an adventurer. He went to Afghanistan in the mid sixties and came back with a load of hashish to die for. Many eventually did. It was the beginning of the Hippie road through Central and Southeast Asia.

In the late sixties, early seventies, Ashbrook bought the Aafje. In Orange Sunshine, Nicholas Shou’s books about the Brotherhood, it is stated that Ashbrook knew about Crazy Jack Morgan, which was one of the attractions of the boat. However, Ashbrook didn’t quite get the point of the story: don’t try to navigate a boat in the Pacific if you don’t know how to navigate a boat. The crew that Ashbrook put together – mostly ex surfers and heads - got lost, along with its tons of Sinaloa marijuana, for weeks on its maiden voyage out of Manzanilla. It finally did, however, make it to Maui, and from the seeds that they brought, they started growing ever more powerful Hawaiian pot – Maui Wowee, famous in song and old codgers’ stories.

Such is only one story, culled by chance from yesterday’s papers. The intersection of the newspaper and the internet, of the ambiguous collection of fact and scoop and the millions of witnesses testifying in blogs and listservs endless has not really been explored, or even scoped out, yet. It is a new form of archive. I don’t even have a name for it. Neo-antiquitarianism?

Monday, October 16, 2017

a prick in the prick system

When O. was president, I often wrote bitterly critical things about what his administration was doing and what was happening in America. But to use the metaphore du jour, I was not entirely woke.

 Trump is a wake up machine. He is, as well, an outgrowth of processes that have been at work in the U.S. since well before the age of Reagan. I think of these processes as the counter-civil rights revolution, not dissimilar to the inertial backwardness that allowed the Jim Crow system to spring up after the Civil War. That took a hundred years to dissolve. Do we have that much time left?

One of the areas where the counter-revolution has succeeded in driving us “back” not to the 1920s, but to, oh, the 15th century under Henry 8, is in the court system.

If Amnesty International weren’t a puppet of the U.S. and the E.U., it would have to mark down the court system in the U.S. as something akin to the court system in Uzbekistan.

Currently, the vast vast majority of criminal cases are never brought to jury trial. There’s a simple reason for this. Although Americans have a formal right to a trial, in reality, that right is abrogated by the threat, which is entirely legal, that maintaining that right will add years to your sentence. We’ve watched prosecutors do this, and judges approve it, without ever questioning it. When your “right” to a trial is loaded down with such vicious punitive consequences, and the prosecution has financial resources far outstripping those of most defendents, what you have is a kangaroo court.

Kangaroo courts depend, lopsidedly, on the vulnerability of the defendents. Thus, when the defendant isn’t vulnerable, when the defendant has money, the system rolls over. The disgusting stuff about Cy Vance, who let Harvey Weinstein pass but whose office routinely jails thousands of poorer offenders for lesser offences, has popped up in the news like some chancre. TheNYT prides itself on covering this, but in fact, the NYT should have shameshame shame for never revealing the way the prosecutor’s office works untilthey have celebrity meat in their mouth. 

You can read the story for its appalling sexism. Or you can also read it as a blueprint for the impunity culture that is the direct result of losing our justice system. It is, in fact, a natural result. The justice system, without justice, becomes a tool of predation. What happened, or didn’t happen, with Weinstein, should be paired with what we know happened, and happens, on a daily basis in Ferguson, Missouri, where the police and the courts essentially mafia the population, and turn working class indigence into lifetimes of misery, one by one, hundred by hundred, thousand by thousand.

“Mr. Weinstein, meanwhile, appeared determined to stay as far away from court as possible. He denied any wrongdoing and quickly retained Elkan Abramowitz, a former law partner of Mr. Vance, as well as Daniel S. Connolly, another former prosecutor turned white-collar defense lawyer.

Linda Fairstein, a former Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor who had once written an article in Vanity Fair about her dream of doing a movie deal with Mr. Weinstein, agreed to consult. She was a close friend of Martha Bashford, head of the district attorney’s sex crimes bureau, and facilitated an introduction for Mr. Abramowitz. It was, she said, the type of thing she does for fellow lawyers. “Calling Ms. Bashford to tell her who Elkan was and to ask her to consider meeting with him is the kind of thing I do four to six times every year,” said Ms. Fairstein, who said she had determined Ms. Battilana’s complaint was unfounded. Ms. Bashford declined a request for an interview.”

This is utterly unsurprising. We’ve heard from Weinstein’s victims mostly because they are stars. I think there are probably non-stars – maids, secretaries, etc. – who also have stories, but we will never hear from them.

Cy Vance, Jr. is egregious. When Bill Clinton and Donald Trump’s friend, billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, was sent to prison for basically pimping and raping under-age girls. This was in Florida. He’s operated with impunity for years. If his earnings had been those of your standard pimp’s, he’d be inprison for thirty some years. Since he was a billionaire, he served 13 monthsin a Palm Beach jail. However, he was labelled a sex offender. 

 This is the kind of thing that happens to small fry. So when he got out and moved back to Florida, he petitioned not to be labelled a sex offender.

At a sex offender registration hearing in 2011, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Gaffney shocked a Manhattan judge by recommending that Epstein be classified as a Level One offender — the lowest on the sex fiend scale.

“I have to tell you I am a little overwhelmed because I have never seen a prosecutor’s office do anything like this,” Justice Ruth Pickholz said, according to records. “I have done many (sex offender registration hearings) much less troubling than this one where the (prosecutor) would never make a downward argument like this.”

Gaffney justified asking for the lower level because Florida federal officials had allowed Epstein to plead guilty to just one count — even though Palm Beach police said there were multiple victims.”

Vance’s office changed their tune when the spotlight was played on this particular quid pro quo-bee. The judge made him a class three offender – which, astonishingly, Vance’s department appealed.
It’s Manhattan, Jake. Cy Vance’s job title should be reconstituted. Maybe District Attorney for the Successful. If you are rich, Cy's by your side. 

But though the man is obviously a prick, he’s a prick in a prick system. One that was given away in my lifetime.

Hard to explain this to the future.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

distance effects

I don’t believe that conservatives or Trumpkins suffer, for the most part, from some empathy disorder. There's a discussion of  Corey Robin's book up at Crooked Timber in which there are many mentions, among the commentariat, that the Right is just a mass of moral failure, built on a deeper emotional deficiency. I don't think this is true, or, more to the point, that there is any evidence for it. 

So what makes for the visible lack of empathy among conservative groups for certain groups?  I would look for the way empathy gets into our social action more than for how our neurons work, here. A neural interpretation of ideology might seem real scientific, but it is no more scientific than, say, an atomic view of ideology. It is reductionism in a void - the void being our vast, vast ignorance about how evidence of our neural processes actually work on the higher level of personal and social interaction. Instead, we read backwards, from those interactions to the neural maps. What seems like science is actually slight of hand - the kind of thing that impresses New York Times op ed editors.  

I'd propose, more modestly, that there is a difference in the way distance is interpreted. There’s a famous essay by Carlos Ginzburg, Killing a Chinese Mandarin: The Moral Implications of Distance, in which he explores the background to a famous scene in Pere Goriot – the one in which Vautrin proposes (in a sort of colonialist koan} to Rastignac the following thought experiment. Ginzburg If you could gain a fortune just by wishing the death (a wish that would be effective) of a Chinese mandarin half way around the world, would you do it? The point is that distance – and the way we make distances, geographically, ethnically, economically, sexually, etc. – has a global effect on our moral sentiments. I would say that the distance making in the Trumpian era of conservatism is going back to an earlier form of it, at least in the U.S., which last became this virulent after WWI. 

Interestingly, the symbol that Trump wrapped his campaign around is the “wall”, this mythical distance fixer that would forever separate white “authentic” America from Mexico (the brown mixed America, I guess).

It isn’t as if liberal culture doesn’t deal in distance as well. When HRC (and I voted for her, in spite of this) ran as a vaguely feminist politician, she never spoke at all about why, then, she would have ended her days in the state department signing off on appallingly large arm sales to the Saudis. Imagine a politician in the 80s running as a civil rights candidate and at the same time offering major support for the Apartheid South African state. But I think this was another case of distance – both geographical and cultural – that simply excluded Saudi women from the moral consideration that one would give American women.

I’m not sure anybody is a master of the moral distances we exist among. I’m not. So I am not saying I understand how to counter distance effects. I’m just saying that they have to be read into the narrative of our political ideologies in order to understand them.

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...