Punishments To Fit the Crime

Donald Trump: Strip him of his iPhone, his Secret Service protection and all his assets. Dress him in overalls and a court-mandated ankle bracelet. Give him a bible, a bullhorn, and a family-size bottle of Oxycontin. Order him to remain within the city limits of Bluefield, West Virginia for the rest of his life.

John Bolton: Equip him with an M4, a Ka-Bar, a pair of camouflage cargo pants, and a Rambo wig. Parachute him at midnight into the outskirts of Teheran or Aleppo or Pyongyang.

Betsy DeVos: Require that henceforth everyone who performs a service for her, from plumbing to asset management to sex, be educated exclusively at the University of Phoenix.

Stephen Miller: Confiscate his passport and deny him access to currency or credit of any kind. Require him to choose between being chased barefoot across rural Mississippi for the next 20 years by mounted prison guards and bloodhounds and speaking only Spanish for the rest of his life. Depending on which he chooses, make sure he wakes up outside the Parchman Farm perimeter fence, or in the center of Tegucigalpa.

Mitch McConnell: Confiscate his principal residence in Kentucky under federal asset forfeiture laws. Provide him with a new principal residence in the Fillmore District of San Francisco. Require him henceforth to run for the Senate from California.

Dick Cheney: Waterboarding, I think. No less than 183 times. Then, if he survives, Guantanamo for, oh, I don’t know how long. Until the last of the other detainees is released, maybe. Let me think about it.

Sean Hannity: Arrange (through the customary diplomatic channels) a papal order of excommunication. Deliver him, bound and gagged, to the leadership of Opus Dei. Invite them, as true servants of the Living God, and of Holy Mother Church, to perform the first auto da fé in almost 200 years.

Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto*

Es gibt viele Arten zu töten. Man kann einem ein Messer in den Bauch stechen, einem das Brot entziehen, einen von einer Krankheit nicht heilen, einen in eine schlechte Wohnung stecken, einen durch Arbeit zu Tode schinden, einen zum Suizid treiben, einen in den Krieg führen usw. Nur weniges davon ist in unserem Staat verboten.

There are many ways to kill. You can stick a knife in someone’s belly, take the bread out of someone’s mouth, not heal someone’s illness, stuff someone in substandard housing, work someone to death, drive someone to suicide, lead someone into war, and so forth. Precious few of these are forbidden in our state.

―Bertolt Brecht

I’ve been a fan of Brecht’s for a long time, mainly because he never failed to depict our emperors without their clothes, and always stood for the one indispensable principle of any civilization worthy of the name: that in the end, either we all matter, or none of us does.

*A quote from Cicero: “Let the safety of the people be the highest law.” Fifty-five years on, I still remember being in a car with some other half-wasted students from Oklahoma State University, passing by the Grady County Courthouse in Chickasha, Oklahoma late on a 1960’s Saturday night. Since the courthouse just happened to be an Art Deco masterpiece, and lit up like a fairground attraction, I got a good look at it as we passed. On the side of the building, high up, was the motto “The safety of the state is the highest law.” That sounds like fascism, I remember thinking as the building passed from view behind us. Indeed….

21st Century Character Studies, Part II

It’s not that Mark Zuckerberg, Travis Kalanick, or Jack Dorsey are unscrupulous; it’s that they don’t seem to have any idea what scruples are.

21st Century Character Studies, Part I

Ryan Zinke — and the horse he rode in on — are finally on their way out of Washington. In the Trump era his resignation surprises no one, and bothers no one much except his erstwhile supporters at Breitbart and the Washington Times. Most of us expect these paragons of Western libertarianism to get caught with their hands in the public till from time to time — and to be unrepentant about it when they do — because we know that in Washington, if not yet in the rest of the country, the performance of virtue has come to be indistinguishable from virtue itself.

When asked by the press to react to his downfall, Secretary Zinke did what is now customary for embarrassed Trumpistas. He blamed the irrational partisanship of his political enemies, and assured everyone that he nevertheless remained steadfast and undaunted. There’s an old saying, he reminded us, that a man should do right and fear no one. That’s what he’d always done, and what he planned to do in the future, come what may.

There’s an old saying. Yes, there is — a very old saying, as it turns out. Like so many other ancient proverbs brandished by the right wing, it sounds more authentic in the original German. Here’s one of the earliest recorded examples, from 1592:

Fürcht Got, Thue recht, Schew niemandt

Fear God, do the right thing, stand in awe of no one. Fearing God has gone by the wayside over the years, even among Christian fundamentalists, but the rest has apparently carried a whiff of Lutheran rectitude across the centuries and continents all the way to present-day Montana, and to Ryan Zinke. Given that Zinke is actually a German name, it isn’t such a stretch to imagine a Zinke great-grandfather’s words of wisdom detached from their original context and turned into a utilitarian political bumpersticker by a descendant who has no real idea who he is, or where he came from. It’s a common American story, this. From Saint Patrick’s Day parades to mariachi concerts in the park on Cinco de Mayo, we both are, and are not, who we think we are.

Is Secretary Zinke who he thinks he is? Does he really embody this ancient teutonic motto that he’s so fond of quoting, or is he simply a hypocrite? The truth is that we have no reliable way of knowing. In a media environment which seems to evaluate politicians in the same way it does film stars, it’s all too easy to confuse performance with reality. For those of us who actually want to distinguish between the two, and who are continually tormented by that sinking feeling that we’ve seen this film before, context is everything. Fortunately for us, there’s a scene in a film — the classic German film, Der Blaue Engel — which illustrates almost too precisely the context at issue here.

The plot of the film is well known: a bourgeois professor is seduced, humiliated, and destroyed by a bohemian showgirl who doesn’t share his supposed values, but understands his suppressed passions all too well. The famous scene in which Professor Rath first awakens to Lola’s seductive charms, and the farce first begins its turn toward tragedy, is followed directly by a closeup of the painted motto above the now empty bed in the professor’s flat, which reads:

Tue Recht und scheue Niemand

The German is more modern than the Sixteenth Century version, and the fear of God is already long gone, but the motto is the same as the one Secretary Zinke is so fond of repeating. The problem with his use of it is that, just as in the case of Professor Rath, the moral of his personal story isn’t at all the one that he’s trying to sell us. It’s actually irrelevant to our interest as citizens, and as voters, whether or not he believes it himself.

Professor Rath was undone by lust, Secretary Zinke by greed. Both are human failings, to which every one of us is susceptible. It’s not that doing right and fearing no one is per se a bad ideal of personal conduct, especially in a democracy, it’s that when one can’t manage to live up to such ideals, a confession is in order, not least of all to oneself. What Secretary Zinke doesn’t get — or doesn’t think that we’ll get — is that ideals must always of necessity be leavened with a little humility. In a just society, or more to the point, a society in which every public figure’s conduct is under surveillance 24/7/365, setting oneself up as a paragon of virtue is not just a bad defense for influence peddling, it’s a ticket to social and political oblivion.

Newton’s Sleep and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell

What to do about Facebook? Teaching fifth-graders to code doesn’t seem like the right answer. Teaching them William Blake might be….

The Laws of Physics, the Limits of Desire

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who’s relied on me off and on for thirty years for tech advice, came to me with a complaint that his iPhone 6 — then barely two years old, out of warranty, but a month or so short of being off contract — was shutting down at random, even though it still seemed to have plenty of charge left in the battery. We rounded up all the usual suspects to no avail, then hauled ourselves off to the nearest Apple store, where the genius at the genius bar, assisted by Apple’s own diagnostic tools, rounded up all of her usual suspects, and concluded that there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with his phone — except, of course, that the random shutdowns made it at best unreliable, and at worst, unusable. At my suggestion, my friend paid off his old contract, and replaced his suddenly unfaithful companion with the then current model, an iPhone 7. Two months later, I read that Apple was replacing batteries for free in out-of-warranty iPhone 6’s exhibiting random shutdowns, with no questions asked, and, as usual for Apple, no explanations given. A year later, again with no explanations given, Apple began throttling iPhones with aging batteries which could no longer supply the necessary voltages under peak load conditions.

It’s been painful to watch Apple get Twittered, Facebooked, and ultimately sued over this whole affair. The fact is that those of us who were aware of the limitations of lithium-ion battery technology, Apple engineering executives above all, should have seen this coming. The very things that make the iPhone magical — its pocketable size, its ever-increasing computing power, and appliance-like simplicity and ease of use — are also, to a greater degree than Apple marketers would have us believe, based on an illusion.

The sad truth is that Apple had painted itself into a corner bounded on the one side by an understandable, if misplaced confidence in its own hardware and software innovations, and on the other by a misguided attempt to protect the technological innocence of its customers from the consequences of their own addictions.

Marketing has its own imperatives, and as any marketing expert worthy of the name would probably concede, a certain blindness to the long-term consequences of its own cleverness has never been much of an impediment to its operating budget, or to its status in the corporate hierarchy. Until, of course, the shit hits the fan. Then the public dance of recriminations is performed, and everyone concerned goes back to business as usual. Except for the hapless consumer, who’s inevitably forced to grumble, sigh, roll his or her eyes, then pay whatever the going rate is to get back on the road.

Apple could have done a lot better a lot quicker. Its customers love what it promises, even those of us among them who know to what extent the promise exceeds the current limits of technology. Progress requires us to dream forward, and to accept that sometimes along the way our reach will exceed our grasp. That said, a little more transparency from those at the pointy end would be welcome. Infantilizing the consumer as a path to marketing success has all sorts of support from the countless schools of social science pilot fish who’ve attached themselves to corporate C-suites in the postwar decades. God forbid that I should deny what their statistics are telling them about our human vulnerabilities. I would ask them, though, to consider how they feel when their own strings are pulled.

Spectator Sport

Watching President Trump try to beat the Congress into submission has been a uniquely gruesome experience, but also an edifying one. For decades now, the dysfunction of the federal government has been something sensed rather than seen, partly because it was in the interest of the political class to keep it hidden, and partly because the media, ever conscious of which side their bread was buttered on, shared that interest.

Today we’re told by Marc Short, the President’s director of legislative affairs, that the White House is simply “asking that the Congress do its job.” I wonder if he, or his boss, for that matter, has any idea just how big an ask that is. If the experience of the past 40 years or so is anything to go by, the problem isn’t that the Congress won’t do its job, it’s that it can’t. Our tolerance for venality, it seems, has drawn the veil over an alarmingly complete incompetence as well. What happens when you bully a moron? Nothing good, I’m thinking, but with the two-minute warning already being signaled, it looks as though we’re about to find out.

Die Amis haben unser Unterbewusstsein kolonisiert*

*The Yanks have colonized our subconscious (A quote from Wim Wenders’ film Im Lauf der Zeit)

Well, you may be old now, I told myself at sixty, but at least you haven’t started reading obituaries. Now that I’m past seventy, I know damned well that it doesn’t matter whether we read them or not. We have Twitter, we have Facebook. Unwelcome news will get to us.

When the unwelcome news of Harry Dean Stanton’s passing arrived on my iPhone a few mornings ago, just ahead of the overnight summary of White House twitter atrocities, I did what we do — I winced and scrolled up to breathless estimates of impending nuclear war. That evening, though, I poured a second beer, dimmed the lights in my living room, dug Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas out of my essential films library, and watched it again after who knows how many years.

The Sam Shepard screenplay was as laconic, as precise as ever, Ry Cooder’s guitar licks were as haunting as ever, and there, at the center, the Old Man was as magnificently himself as ever, even though he wasn’t nearly as old as I’d remembered. When he died, I said to myself, something about what it means to be an American died with him.

But what is it about these Germans? Wim Wenders, Percy Adlon — who gave them permission to put Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinsky together in the lonesome American Southwest, or Jack Palance and Marianne Sägebrecht, for that matter? What kind of muse, what kind of genius is this?

Yeah, well…. It’s a long story. If you live in Arizona, as I do, it’s impossible to miss the German cousins in our midst. Go anywhere around here in the summer months and there they are, seemingly impervious to sunstroke, peering into their guidebooks for directions to the local Sehenswürdigkeiten, more familiar with our landmarks — even the ones they haven’t seen yet — than we are ourselves. I used to wonder, now and then, if there could possibly be as many Germans in all the other deserts of the world — the Sahara, the Gobi, the Kalahari, the Atacama, the Negev — as there were in the Sonora and Mojave.

With all due respect to the insatiable German curiosity about the world we share, I doubt it. For all sorts of historical reasons — never mind the two world wars — our national mythologies harbor semi-disclosed affinities that appeal to both our populations more or less equally. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we’re constantly in and out of each others’ pockets, sometimes with a pessimism bordering on the morbid, but more often than not with the kind of cross-cultural fertility that levels empires, confuses dialects, and assists in the birth of things no single individual could ever have dreamed of.

Case in point: Wim Wenders. The French famously lead the rest of Europe in complaining about us, but Wenders, who knows us far better, gives us the benefit of a doubt that admittedly we don’t always deserve. It’s not exactly a get-out-of-jail-free card, though, this Paris, Texas of his. It’s an admonishment, if a gentle and sympathetic one, of our chimerical American dreams. Fair play to him. Having colonized the German subconscious, as Wenders himself so elegantly put it, we can hardly complain when a German artist of his stature returns the favor.

Someone should arrange to show Paris, Texas to the pig currently posing as our president, not that it would do any good. He’s as American as I am, but he’ll never have any idea what that actually means, let alone honor it in his actions. How much better off would we be, do you think, if the qualities that Harry Dean Stanton embodied in his best performances informed the day-to-day actions of our politicians? In the meantime, all I can say is that I’ll miss that grand old man, and so will a lot of other people, Wim Wenders fans or not.

Fáfnir Wasn’t German, Was He? (Don’t Know About Smaug)

From an article in Mining.com, linked from Naked Capitalism:

Germany’s central bank completed Wednesday its plan to bring back home 54,000 gold bars it had in vaults located in New York and Paris to beneath its Frankfurt headquarters, three years ahead of schedule…

…The lender said it ‘thoroughly and exhaustively’ tested all of the bars after they arrived back in Frankfurt and ‘no irregularities came to light with regard to the authenticity, fineness or weight of the bars.’

If We Can Somehow Bring Ourselves To Take the Long View, We Probably Should….

Revised from a recent comment of mine on this Crooked Timber thread:

A sort of Marxist point about our present distempers: the conditions of existence have changed, probably irrevocably, for the Scots-Irish coal miners of West Virginia, the libertarian ranchers of the West, and the industrial workers of Ohio and Pennsylvania, and they’re not happy about it. Should Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk feel any more sympathy for them than their own ancestors felt for Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, or Geronimo? A similar observation could be made about our lack of sympathy for the Taliban and the Salafists.

One difference is striking, though, about our current last-ditch defenders of traditions outmaneuvered by modernity. They’re more widely distributed, and they’re also much better armed. The consolations of Whatever happens — we have got — the Maxim gun — and they have not have succumbed in their own fashion to a modernity not even the Moderns themselves seem to understand. Not yet, anyway.

Marx thought that once the conditions of existence had changed sufficiently, the past would be, or could be, swept away by revolutionaries with their eyes on the future. Seen up close, from the vantage point of an individual life, the process is far uglier, no matter what subsequent theoretical revisions from the foundries of Marxist ideology, or cheerleading from neoliberal think tanks promise us. Somewhere between Faulkner’s The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past, and Gibson’s The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed, there’s a place to stand that won’t offend either our conscience or our common sense. Maybe. One hopes. YMMV.