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Monday, May 8, 2017

The imaginary apocalypse of the apoplectic reactionary right

by John MacBeath Watkins

Donald Trump campaigned by constantly talking as if America were an apocalyptic wasteland.

In April, his Justice Department issued a press release claiming New York City is soft on crime.

“New York City continues to see gang murder after gang murder, the predictable consequence of the city’s ‘soft on crime’ stance,” the press release, aimed at New York's status as a sanctuary city, stated.

New York is experiencing near-record lows in crime, and and its murder rate is about 1/6th of what it was when the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program was established. The Justice Department is threatening to defund the program if New York does not end its sanctuary city status.

The program is named after a police officer who was shot while guarding an immigrant targeted by gangs for reporting their crimes. City police departments need the trust of the people who they ask to report crimes, which s why they are often not eager to be recruited as part of the mechanism for deporting some of those people.

Most people see the dropping crime rate and the general prosperity of the country and consider that things are not all that bad here. Trump and other reactionaries see a wasteland.

Andrew Sullivan recently interviewed a number of people who pass for intellectuals on the reactionary right for an article in New York magazine. They sound pretty bonkers.

Charles Kesler, for example, is a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. He believes that we are at a crisis in American democracy. He wants to return to the rule of a party like the Republicans of the 1920s, and to a policy of limiting immigration, as the 1924 Immigration Act said, “that which can be assimilated with reasonable rapidity, and to favor immigrants whose standards are similar to ours.”

Perhpas Kesler is unaware that the law he so admires was one of the proudest accomplishments of the Ku Klux Klan, or at least they liked to take credit. Here's a Klan cartoon from 1924:

Note the goals: restricted immigration, militant Protestantism, better government, clean politics, “back to the Constitution,” law enforcement, better schools, and “greater allegiance to the flag.”

They didn't actually use the term, "drain the swamp," but their stated goals were very similar to the current crop of reactionaries.

Certainly the founding fathers would have had no objection to better schools (although I'm pretty sure they would have found Betsy De Vos, with her rejection of empirical data, objectionable) but they definitely would have rejected any effort to make a particular religion and would have realized that the "clean politics" claim was just a way of attacking incumbents, and the Klan didn't actually care about corruption if it made them and their allies more powerful.
Far from wanting to preserve the ethnic identity and culture they had, they wanted to mix in more foreigners. But then, they were men of the Enlightenment. They believed reason and ideas were more important than ethnic identity.

Reactionaries like to think that American democracy is at a crisis not just because of immigrants and multiculturalism, but also because "the administrative state," and liberal elites -- scientists, journalists, academics, as well as career government employees, has in some way hijacked government.

And here is where the apocalyptic vision comes in.

In Sullivan's piece, Kesler describes why he backed Trump.

It was an act of desperation, he explained. In classic reactionary fashion, he believes that we are living through a crisis of American democracy. The Claremont consensus (to put a name on this strain of thought) holds that beneath the veneer of constitutional democracy, we are actually governed by a soft despotism of permanent experts, bureaucrats, pundits, and academics who ignore the majority of the American people. This elite has encouraged a divisive social transformation of the country, has led us into disastrous wars, and has created a deepening economic crisis for the middle class. Anyone — anyone — who could challenge this elite’s power was therefore a godsend.

Now, it's true that we have elites in this country. They are no longer rich planters who own slaves, more often they are people with advanced degrees in understanding the problems we face. The British became comfortable with this group of people, and called them Mandarins -- the career people who served under elected officials of all parties.

There is an obvious danger in defining anyone with a deep understanding of the nation's problems as the enemy. If you rely on the knowledge of non-experts, you may be faced with the sort of thing H. L. Mencken was talking about when he said, "Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong."

More worrying than Kesler's views are those of some of his fellow travelers.

Michael Anton, who like Kesler and some other reactionaries is a student of Leo Strauss's work, is known for an essay in which he compared the situation of American democracy as being like being on Flight 93, the 9/11 aircraft that was hijacked for use as a missile aimed at Washington, D.C., but whose passengers charged the terrorists and brought down the plane.
 “Charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You — or the leader of your party — may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.” It’s not just that Trump is better than the alternatives: “The truth is that Trump articulated, if incompletely and inconsistently, the right stances on the right issues — immigration, trade and war — right from the beginning.”
Well, I did say they sounded bonkers.

The election and governance of President Obama seems to have been considered an apocalyptic event by these particular reactionaries. Anton, for example, has succumbed to the notion that Obama ruled in an unconstitutional manner. From Sullivan:

What he calls “Caesarism” is already here, as Obama’s abuse of executive power proved. Therefore: “If we must have Caesar, who do you want him to be? One of theirs? Or one of yours (ours)?” Krein put it even more plainly: “Restoring true constitutional — or even merely competent — government requires a fundamental transformation of the underlying culture and elite opinion. It requires, in a certain sense, regime change in America.”
(Krein  here is Julius Krein, another Straussian scholar.)

The notion that President Trump will usher in more competent government is one of the more bonkers notions this crew has. Trump has proven to be a weak president despite his party controlling both houses of congress because he simply does not understand the powers of the president. He is a would-be strongman who is limited by his own incompetence.

The truth is, these reactionaries could not accept the legitimacy of a black president. Therefore, any use of power by that president must have been illegitimate. Any use of executive power by Barack Obama had to be an "abuse of power."

The reactionary moment in American history is not about abuse of power. In fact, people like Anton want to see exactly that, but in pursuit of their own goals.

Perhaps the country will get its fill of reactionary sentiment, and we can move beyond that. But having an intellectual movement that is unashamedly reactionary is one more indication that democracy is in danger.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A brief history of book theft in Seattle

by Jamie Lutton

Book theft has a curious history. It has been going on since the Middle Ages, when handwritten books were chained down to prevent it. But what I saw in my years working for others, then in my own store, was co-ordinateed efforts to steal wholesale and resell, often by addicts.

This was at it's worse, before Internet sales closed a lot of stores here. Addicts would steal from new bookstores (or stores that had books in them, new, like grocery stores) then try to sell them to used bookstores. This necessitated the installation of security systems of various kinds - tags in books, and checking bags.

Some few bookstores added to the problem.

A now deceased bookseller in our University District was an outright fence.

Starting 40 years ago, to the late 1990's, He gave lists of books he wanted to thieves. Most of them were hipster/homeless junkies who did not mind sticking it to ''the man'' to get heroin money. The thieves would go to bookstores only down the block, like Magus Books, the Twice Sold Tales that was in the University district, and the University bookstore, fill their bags, and dash out.

The long suffering owner of Magus, for example, would walk in, or send and employee down and ask for his books back, and the scoundrel would hand them over to avoid jail. If the bookstore that got ripped off didn't know about the theft, the man would happily sell them.

That bookseller is a tale unto himself. He - who will remain nameless here - chain smoked in his books store, and was frequently napping on an old brown ratty couch. He had REALLY young girlfriends hanging around him, even in his 50's. Had a deep smoky voice rather like Jack Nicholson, was tall and rangy, but a real Fagan as far as ethics go.. I shelved books for him in the early 1980's, for about two months, and saw this all going on around me.

Desperate for a job in Seattle, I hung on, until I was replaced by a very very young girl. The store had cute black and white cats and good books, so the public ignored the cigarette smoke and the other sketchy aspects of the place, and kept it going for decades.

Once I saw him get really lit and just start giving away stock; if someone liked the book, he would hand it over. He would also buy rounds for the house at his favorite bar. The party only ended when the feds found out he hadn't paid payroll taxes for a quarter century.

These professional shoplifters taught this method of living to other junkies, from that time to now, The theft was so outrageous in the 1990s that theft alone put small new bookstores out of business, and larger ones like mine put in elaborate security systems. Backpacks full of books were swiped, usually very popular fiction, and art books, and drug culture related books (surprise).

To this day, nearly every day someone still tries to sell me ''hot'' books.

One man, just a few years ago, who had given me his business card as a physical therapist (I had recently been hit by a car) came to me with a backpack full of graphic novels. I nearly bought them, but then looked at the date on the tags on the back, and they were all from last week or so from a store down the street. I politely turned them down.

One of the problems with turning down stolen books when offered is that junkies get angry with you. I have had death threats for not buying stolen books. I don't have a camera system yet, because of the Orwellian implications of that. Yet. I usually say now 'no I have copies of those' and then write down the titles after they leave, and put a report into the Stolen Book Network online.

The Stolen Book Network may be unique to Seattle; I called a few Denver bookstores, both new and used, and they said that they did not have a problem with systematic theft like we do here.

Over 20 years ago, in the face of a scourge of organized theft from bookstores, both new and used,

Seattle bookstores of all kinds developed a loose confederation which would exchange emails with descriptions of the books that had been stolen, offered, or photos of people caught stealing.

What The University bookstore does, is take is take pictures of shoplifters they catch and charge, and send them around to other stores so that they are on the lookout for that person,and don't let them in the store. Also used bookstores get photo ID and xerox it, to pass on if the books are found to be hot. These punks have no clue. One young man offered me his photo ID to be copied, and openly sold me a stack of textbooks that he had, as it turned out, just been swiped from the Seattle Central Community College campus bookstore a scant 2 blocks away. I returned the books, and the weary manager told me that theft was so bad, that they could only open that part of the store of one week of the year because they were being looted. .

Some of the larger chain bookstore rely on in house security to stop thieves, and cameras, but are still victimized regularly.

The trick is not to believe sob stories on where people say they got the books. This takes a gimlet eye, and a firm but polite no.

I can be fooled, when it is 4 books and the customer looks like he could have bought them.

It is when they come back with more of the same, and they are all shiny and new, that you know you have been had.

In the old days, before the Internet and the network, when I would catch a shoplifter, I would snap a picture of the thief blow it up with a color xerox, and post it in my plate glass window, instead of calling the cops, so that that person would know not to come in. yeah, and to shame them.  I would chase shoplifters too, as I was younger and stupid. My personal record is 8 blocks, but I think he was a smoker, which is why I could keep up with him.

That kid had asked for a book,then dashed out the door with it, and I was teed enough to go after him.

Another time this happened I grabbed some large male backup and went looking for the thief, and he made the sign of the ''evil eye'' when I fluently cussed him out for ripping me off. as he reluctantly handed the book back. .

The combination of casual theft for personal use, and theft to feed a drug habit has plagued my shop and others in town for 30 years.

This problem fortunately has sharply dropped off as used bookstores have vanished. So few of us pay cash nowadays, that addicts have branched out to stealing other retail objects to support their habit,

For example stealing expensive dry goods like batteries, and such and reselling them to unscrupulous small five and dime stores.

This is so bad locally a ring doing this was broken up just a few years ago that was fencing boxed diapers, batteries, and other must haves to a large independent shop that was , like that bookseller decades ago, was giving out lists.

I recently developed a cultural theory on this. As an cultural anthropology major, back in the day, I was curious what gave the masses mental permission to commit casual and addiction driven theft. I blame the book Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman for the origin of this pattern.

This book, published in 1970, was a handbook on how to steal anything you wanted, with techniques shown in crude drawings in the books. It blithely claimed that this was all ok, as business owners were ''the man."

Theft of all kinds from shops skyrocketed after that. Even to this day, when I remark to young customers about why I have to check bags, some calmly say oh ''people' would not steal from YOU only ''big stores''. Which exhibits a total ignorance of how profit margins work for all shops big and small, and where jobs come from.

This is part of the running gag I have with customers which ends ''and you wonder why all the shops have vanished and gone online."

The casual disrespect of private property, and the lust to get free stuff has ruined the contract between me and the public. I know that I will have a lot of shrinkage, and that is because what I am trying to do is not respected by some in the general public.

When people complain that there is no shops near them, it is not just the rents, it the heartbreak of knowing that well-fed prosperous young people have no compunction to just walk away with product.

This drives people to find other kinds of work, or just sell online.

Between Internet companies that drive prices down, to high rents, to theft, a lot of start up entrepreneurs look at the modern situation, and don't go into retail of any kind.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Nonsense Poem: The Squirrels are Quoting Shakespeare

by John MacBeath Watkins

The squirrels are quoting Shakespeare
to each other in the park
while the moon falls from the heavens
as he stumbles in the dark
the stars fade in their spotlights
in a sky as cold as stone
while the paparazzi
fight over a bone
and the dogs bay and the cats spray
as they try to claim the new day
and birds soar on wings sore
from battling the broken wind
while the sun comes up like plunder

spreading gold upon the shore.

"Little Nemo in Slumberland" - Winsor McCay by docarelle, via Flickr