Pluralistic: 27 Jul 2022


Today's links



The cover of the 2015 Bold Type Books edition of Nelson A Denis's 'War Against All Puerto Ricans.'

"War Against All Puerto Ricans" (permalink)

Puerto Rico is back in the news.

Sorta.

That Other America breaches the US media consciousness every couple of years. The Bad President put it in the news by his horrific, racist failure to respond to Hurricane Maria:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/it-totally-belittled-the-moment-many-look-back-in-anger-at-trumps-tossing-of-paper-towels-in-puerto-rico/2018/09/13/8a3647d2-b77e-11e8-a2c5-3187f427e253_story.html

And the Good President put Puerto Rico in the news by sidelining its elected government because they had the temerity to stiff his buddies on Wall Street, just like GW Bush did to Flint when they crossed the same line:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/obama-signs-law-to-rescue-puerto-ricos-economy/2016/06/30/882fbc7e-3ed7-11e6-84e8-1580c7db5275_story.html

The finance bros that Obama put in charge of the island turned it into an offshore Flint, starving its utilities in order to extract more debt payments to the finance sector. The ensuing neglect meant that when Maria hit, the power infrastructure collapsed, leaving the US citizens of Puerto Rico without electricity for three months.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/29/us/puerto-rico-power-outage.html

Donald Trump couldn't have murdered thousands of Puerto Ricans and immiserated millions more without Barack Obama's help. But that's unfair to both Trump and Obama: they were merely carrying on a centuries-long tradition stretching back to Teddy Roosevelt, a bedrock American heritage of racism, neglect, enslavement, torture, and extraction (so. much. extraction.).

Puerto Rico is back in the news. The island territory – where US citizens do not get to vote for the president nor send a voting representative to Congress – is planning a binding referendum on whether to become a US state, or whether to secede from the USA altogether.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jul/20/puerto-rico-statehood-independent-free-association-debate

As it happens, I just became a US citizen. As a Californian, I am (nominally) protected by the US Constitution, and in a couple months I will get to vote for my Congressional rep – unlike millions of Puerto Ricans, who have been citizens for generations, but who are not entitled to equal protection under the law – as the Supreme Court just affirmed:

https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/20-303_6khn.pdf

Days after I took my citizenship oath, I joined my family for a two-week holiday on Puerto Rico. I arrived with jumbled impressions of the island's history, gleaned from the odd article, radio documentary and news article. By the time we left, I had a much more coherent understand of the centuries of systematic, ghastly fuckery that these United States of America had visited upon its "commonwealth" and what the stakes are for the referendum.

We started in Old San Juan, where we got oriented via Andy Rivera's architectural tour, which introduced us to the 500 year history of the city and its colonial masters:

https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/174126

On the tour, I noticed the LibrerĂ­a Laberinto, a bookstore, and made a point of visiting it later that day:

https://librerialaberintopr.com/

That's where I found Nelson A Denis's incredible history of the island, War Against All Puerto Ricans, a brilliant, funny, enraging and masterful history of the failed Puerto Rican revolution of 1950, and its leader, the remarkable Pedro Albizu Campos:

https://waragainstallpuertoricans.com/the-book/

Denis is a Cuban/Puerto-Rican-American raised in New York City, whose Cuban-born father was kidnapped and deported to Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the FBI indiscriminately shattered families on orders from Bobby Kennedy:

https://nelsondenis.wordpress.com/home/

Denis went on to go to Harvard, where, in 1977, he published a landmark work of historical scholarship in the Harvard Political Review, "The Curious Constitution of Puerto Rico." From Harvard, Denis continued on to Yale, where he took a law degree – and continued his voracious study of the Puerto Rican revolution and its aftermath.

He conducted years of research – hundreds of FOIA requests, thousands of hours of interviews with the architects, partisans and eyewitnesses – he published his masterpiece, which weaves together the disparate narratives of all the actors in this tragicomedy to present a truth that is far, far stranger than fiction.

For generations, Puerto Rico was a classic imperial periphery, the place where eminent families sent their failsons for a second chance. The most rapacious corporations in American – along with the US military – established operations in PR and staffed them with a clown cavalcade of idiots and sadists, who, by dint of birth, were put in a position of power over the people of Puerto Rico.

Each of these men came to Puerto Rico to seek their fortune, and, by and large, they found it – extracted it, rather, from the sweat and blood of Puerto Ricans. They committed gaffes, scams and atrocities and then went back to the mainland, where they were celebrated.

Take Dr Cornelius Rhoads, an eminent physician whose tenure as an island hospital administrator was cut short when his maid discovered a letter he'd written to a mainland colleague in which he railed against Puerto Ricans in a vicious, racist tirade, then gloated about having murdered several of his Puerto Rican patients as part of a genocidal campaign to rid the island of its islanders:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornelius_P._Rhoads

Despite having admitted to a string of racially motivated murders, Rhoads was celebrated on his return. He became an army doctor, developed chemical weapons, and went on to appear on the cover of Time magazine as a great hero.

In some ways, it's not surprising that Rhoads would be lionized for murdering Puerto Ricans. After all, a legion of white doctors participated in the forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women from the 1930s to the 1970s, ultimately sterlizing a third of the island's women:

https://www.panoramas.pitt.edu/health-and-society/dark-history-forced-sterilization-latina-women

I'd heard of Rhoads, but not of the many other failsons whose lives Denis chronicles – the governor who arrived on the island with a plan to remake it as an animal training center where nightingales would learn to sing "The Stars and Stripes Forever" for sale to patriotic Texans at $50 a pop. I also didn't know about the army – literal and figurative – of FBI agents who employed a vast network of informants to produce detailed, paranoid dossiers on the people of the island.

More importantly, I didn't know about the Puerto Ricans who are the true heroes of this tale, like Albizu, orphaned as a small boy following his mother's suicide, who raised himself, became a prodigy, attended Harvard, and excelled at everything he did. Albizu – brilliant, driven, committed – refused offers to clerk for the Supreme Court or work for large American corporations, and instead returned to Puerto Rico to work as a poor peoples' lawyer. He went on to lead the revolutionary independence movement, and was tortured to death by America in return.

Albizu is just one of the many larger-than-life, tragic heroes of Denis's tale: there's Juan Emilio ViguiĂ©, a self-taught virtuoso filmmaker who left the island to work as the embedded documentarian for Pancho Villa's army, returned home, and became the Zapruder of the Ponce massacre, a grisly atrocity whose architects – more failsons from the mainland – were never held to account for.

There's also Vidal Santiago DĂ­az – a barber turned gunrunner, who supplied the independence movement with arms and a secret meeting place, all under the nose of the FBI, who eventually helped the island police kidnap him and subject him to barbaric torture. On his release, DĂ­az returned to his barbershop, recovered his cached weapons, and held off thirty armed men singlehandedly from within the shop, for hours, as the nation listened in to live, play-by-play radio reporting. Eventually, they gassed DĂ­az, entered his shop, and shot him in the head. They dragged him into the street for the news-crews to photograph, but he surprised them by reviving and denouncing the police. He was taken to a cell to die, but not before he recounted his side of the storied, fabled battle.

These are the protagonists of Denis's narrative, with the failsons serving as foils, villains, and color – like Waller Booth, a spy with the OSS (forerunner to the CIA) who came to the island to spy on nationalists. He set up an after-hours club themed after his favorite movie, Casablanca, which he screened on repeat in a private room in the club. Nationalists would sit and watch the movie every night, in the manner of Rocky Horror, and shout witty lines at the screen: "We'll always have the FBI!" and "Round up the usual Nationalists!"

Denis builds up his story one character or event at a time, retelling the tale from different angles, weaving together the perspectives of his people over and over, using them to illuminate different aspects of the degradation and pillaging of Puerto Rico and the indomitable spirit of its people. It is in this fashion, for example, that Denis dissects – and demolishes – the 1917 law that Congress passed in the name of Puerto Rican self-determination, but which really only served to make Puerto Ricans subject to the draft.

So it goes, in Denis's history: an American conglomerate or politician comes up with a new and depraved way to profit from the islanders, and they resist – against all odds, in the face of violent repression. The revolution itself – which included an attempt on Truman's life – plays out with the drama of a war movie.

Apart from their Puerto Ricanness, the protagonists of this story would make great American folkloric heroes, Horatio Algers who came from humble beginnings, succeeded through thrift, tireless striving and indomitable will, devoted themselves to justice, and stood up to bullies – and paid with their lives for a righteous cause.

But because the bullies they stood up to were operating as agents of America, they are forgotten. Not even reviled – erased. On the American mainland, the Puerto Rican revolution isn't even a footnote. Indeed, Puerto Rico itself is often forgotten by America, despite the many sons and daughters of the island who have fought for its military. Remember Maria, when Trump and his supporters spoke of Puerto Ricans as foreigners whose "country" was insufficiently grateful for "American charity?"

But this history is not forgotten in Puerto Rico. How could it be? After all, the disappearances and torture – which included mad science experiments in which political prisoners were irradiated until they perished – did not take place in some distant past. As Denis's end-notes demonstrate, many of the people who witnessed these extraordinary events are still alive, and Denis's work is based on corroborated eyewitness testimony, backed by FOIAed documents.

Denis's book was indispensable as we traveled around this beautiful, marvelous island, because it is also a small island, and every place we visited had a cameo in the book: the movie theater we took the kids to see Thor at was in a town that once housed a nightmare gulag where Nationalists were electrocuted, starved and shot.

By superimposing the crimes of empire over the landscape, we were able to get some context for the flags, the graffiti, and the news about the looming referendum.

One day in a taxi, the driver talked to us about the referendum: I mentioned that I had just become a US citizen and for my sake, I would like Puerto Rico to become a state and gain two senators, but for their sake, it seemed that independence would be a better deal.

She agreed vigorously, and spoke of the crypto-bros and pharma companies that descended on the island with the idea of turning it into a kind of hyper-Delaware, an onshore-offshore regulation and tax haven, just as the sugar-barons and other failsons of the mainland had done for more than a century.

Visiting Puerto Rico was the perfect commemoration of my US citizenship – a chance to eat some of America's best food, listen to some of its greatest music, see its most beautiful national forest, meet some of its friendliest people, see some of its most beautiful art – and learn of some of its most vicious crimes. Puerto Rico is the only place where the US military bombed US citizens, but, of course, the US military has bombed many, many places.

The contradictory currents that pull at America are all in sharp relief on the island. It has served as a lab for so many of America's worst ideas, and also as a proving ground for the resistance to those ideas.

So much has happened since 2015 when this book was published – and so much of what has happened is an echo of what went before. Denis's ability to describe the bravery and spirit of those who fight for independence, self-determination and dignity rivals greats like Howard Zinn. Combine that skill with Denis's personal connection to the material – and the access it gave him to the buried histories of America's sins – and you get a high-speed masterclass on the choice facing Puerto Ricans today.



A red Audi crossover SUV speeding down a highway, with a sunroof. Sticking out of the sunroof is an old editorial cartoon depicting a debt collector: a thuggish man brandishing a club and sticking out his hand. The SUV's windows are filled with the menacing, glowing red eye of HAL9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The car's license plate is a custom California tag reading 'OTTO,' the name of the lead character from the 1984 movie 'Repo Man.'

Dashcam repo (permalink)

If you want a motto for the current economic situation, a touchstone to check in on whenever you hear about a new business model or a new depredation, I suggest Michael Hudson's bedrock claim: "Debts that can't be paid, won't be paid." 40 years of wage stagnation, combined with spiraling health, housing and education costs have produced a mountain of unpayable debts.

Our society is organized around a small number of creditors extracting rents from an ever-growing pool of debtors whose ability to pay is eroded by every penalty and every emergency triggered by the lack of a cushion:

https://pluralistic.net/2022/07/08/jubilant/#construire-des-passerelles

Debts that can't be paid, won't be paid. We can pass laws that limit access to bankruptcy, we can pass laws that allow creditors to take your pay, to take your things, to take your home. We can pass laws that let creditors go after your children for your debts, so that even death won't wipe the slate clean, so that debt becomes an intergenerational cycle:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/05/19/zombie-debt/#damnation

We can do all that, and still: debts that can't be paid, won't be paid. It's a lesson every loan-shark knows. You can pile penalties and interest you've on your borrower until you consume an ever-greater share of their income, but eventually, you reach an end-game. Eventually, the borrower is out of money, and has to choose between an essential (rent, food, medicine) and the vig. When that happens, the loan-shark sends out an arm-breaker to rearrange the borrower's choice-architecture.

Sure, under normal circumstances, the choice between food and a creditor's bill is an easy one. Your hungry belly will trump the creditor's claim, every time. But what if the creditor can threaten you with something worse than hunger? What if they can break your arm, or just one finger?

Faced with the choice between starvation (or homelessness, or sickness) and making your monthly payment, you might discover a third choice, like stealing and pawning your parent's jewelry, or raiding your kid's college fund, or remortgaging your house, or borrowing from another loan-shark to pay off your guy.

Sure, these are terrible options. Sure, they reduce your future ability to pay. They're like gnawing off your own leg when you're starving. The arm-breaker's job is to make these terrible alternatives preferable to skipping a payment.

Enter the digital arm-breaker. Networked, digital objects make arm-breaking cheaper and more effective than ever, transforming the artisinal, personal craft of terrorizing debtors into a mass-scale industrial activity. Miss a car payment? Maybe that car has a second, remote-controlled stereo that blares angry demands at you wherever you go:

https://edition.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/wayoflife/04/17/aa.bills.shut.engine.down/index.html

Or maybe the dealer can immobilize it, disabling the ignition system:

https://dealbook.nytimes.com/2014/09/24/miss-a-payment-good-luck-moving-that-car/

Or maybe it's a Tesla, which will lock and immobilize itself and signal the dealer, then, when the repo man arrives, will flash its lights, honk its horn and back out of its parking place to ease repossession:

https://tiremeetsroad.com/2021/03/18/tesla-allegedly-remotely-unlocks-model-3-owners-car-uses-smart-summon-to-help-repo-agent/

Algorithms can automate the arm-breaker's creative sadism. Think of the subprime mobile phone lenders in India, who equip their phones with spyware that monitors the borrower's usage, and if they miss a payment, switch off their apps, one at a time, starting with the app they use the most:

https://restofworld.org/2021/loans-that-hijack-your-phone-are-coming-to-india/

When you scale up arm-breaking, you can scale up the kind of lending that arm-breaking enables. You can pump tons of debt into the economy, luring investors into funding this loan-sharking by promising that the "securitized" stream of payments they'll get in return will be backstopped by digital arm-breaking.

Eating your own legs can substitute for food…for a while. Credit can substitute for income…for a while. But you can't build a sustainable economy by substituting debt for a living wage. That's a zombie economy, one full of debts that can't be paid, so they won't be paid:

https://pluralistic.net/2021/04/02/innovation-unlocks-markets/#digital-arm-breakers

Every time the creditor class senses that the debtor class is reaching a crisis point, they reach into their digital toolbox and find another way to re-engineer the choice architecture.

Take used cars. At the start of the pandemic, the auto manufacturers cancelled all their microchip orders. This meant they couldn't make cars anymore, because the car companies have been in a race to stuff as many superfluous computers into their products as they possibly can, vying to have the most powerful dashboard infotainment systems, despite the fact that 99% of drivers will just suction-cup their cellphone over that screen and ignore it, except to turn on the Bluetooth.

(Of course, stuffing cars with computers allows Big Car to charge by the month for every "feature" – like BMW, which makes you pay a subscription fee to use your own car-seat heaters):

https://www.techdirt.com/2022/07/26/hackers-already-prepared-to-screw-up-bmws-subscription-heated-seat-model/

The car companies eventually figured out that not being able to make cars was probably bad for business, but by that time, the chip-makers had given priority to other customers, and cars went to the back of the line. Now there are vast warehouses full of undriveable new cars, awaiting their microchips. Some car makers are so desperate that they're buying up new appliances and tearing them apart to harvest their microchips:

https://hackaday.com/2022/07/05/companies-rumored-to-harvest-washing-machines-for-ics/

The shortage of new cars has driven up the price of used cars. Used car dealers are kicking themselves for selling cars last year rather than holding onto them until the prices went up. Lucky for them, there's always arm-breakers.

Because the US economy is structured around ensuring that creditors triumph over debtors, used car dealers are entitled to repossess their customers' cars just a few days after they miss a payment (in many states, it's just ten days!). When that happens, the dealer keeps all the money their customer has already paid, and they get to sell the car again – at a much higher price.

The poorer you are, the more predatory your car loan is. You'll pay higher interest, you'll pay more penalties, and you're more likely to be on the hook for thousands in further penalties after the dealer repos your car. For dealers, this is great news: take the shittiest car on your lot, sell it to the most desperate person who walks through the door, extract every penny they can afford and then many that they can't, and then repo the car and sell it at a higher price. Your first customer still owes you and you can sell their debt to a collector, and your next customer – already debt-burdened, bound by your most unfavorable lending terms – will soon miss a payment, which will let you do it all over again.

We're in the middle of a car repossession bubble.

Subprime auto-lenders are repoing every car they can, reselling them at a huge markup compared to the prices of just a few months ago.

The repo bubble is so inflated that it's budding off bizarre sub-industries. Writing for the @LATimes, @dleelatimes spoke to Mark Lacek, a Florida repo man, who described a new kind of repo "beachcomber":

https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2022-07-25/used-car-prices-are-way-up-and-the-repo-man-is-back

"Like beachcombers with metal detectors a small army of people with license-plate-reading cameras mounted on their cars cruise the streets, waiting for a ping to alert them when they pass a vehicle in the repo database."

Unsaid is what kind of car they're cruising for. After all, most modern cars are factory-equipped with spyware that track's the car's location (manufacturers and dealers harvest this data and sell it to marketing companies, cops, or forced-birth cultists looking to track the movements of abortion-seekers):

https://www.mercurynews.com/2022/07/23/opinion-california-must-lead-on-preserving-privacy-in-our-cars/

If you're a used-car dealer who can't find a car you sold a few months ago, it is a very old, very low-end kind of car. It's a poor car for a poor person. Likewise, if the only job you can find is cruising the streets, capturing license plates in hopes of winning a repo man's bounty, you are very likely poor yourself.

Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal suggested that poor people could sell their children as food for the rich. But – thanks to digital arm-breakers – we don't even need to involve the rich in our modern poverty-alleviation programs. Today, we can pay poor people to immiserate other poor people.

But still: debts that can't be paid, won't be paid.

Image:
Cryteria (modified)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HAL9000.svg

CC BY 3.0:
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY 3.0, modified)


Hey look at this (permalink)



This day in history (permalink)

#5yrsago “Intellectual property rights” are why UK government won’t say which housing failed fire safety test https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-40749036

#5yrsago Wells Fargo also defrauded 800,000 car loan customers and stole 25,000 cars https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/27/business/wells-fargo-unwanted-auto-insurance.html



Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Roger Moore.

Currently writing:

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Yesterday's progress: 531 words (25633 words total)

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Yesterday's progress: 526 words (21883 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. (92849 words total) – ON PAUSE

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FINAL DRAFT COMPLETE

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Reasonable Agreement: On the Crapification of Literary Contracts https://craphound.com/news/2022/06/27/reasonable-agreement-on-the-crapification-of-literary-contracts/

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Upcoming books:

  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023


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