“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, December 31, 2016

the muse of human extinction and other new year's thoughts

Richard Posner, that curiously coldblooded judge, wrote a book in 2004 that considered the economics and law of human catastrophes. It was reviewed in Slate, from which I take this precis of one of his thought experiments.
“Consider the possibility that atomic particles, colliding in a powerful accelerator such as Brookhaven Lab's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, could reassemble themselves into a compressed object called a stranglet that would destroy the world. Posner sets out to "monetize" the costs and benefits of this "extremely unlikely" disaster. He estimates "the cost of extinction of the human race" at $600 trillion and the annual probability of such a disaster at 1 in 10 million.”
The six hundred trillion dollar figure is  absurd and … almost touching. What Posner has stumbled onto is one of the theological conundrums of economics, much like the scholastic chestnut about whether God could create a rock that he couldn’t lift.  The scholastic chestnut was a way of parsing the logic of divine omnipotence. The six hundred trillion dollars is a way of parsing the limit of money and the economics attached to it, since a dollar without a human being to use it is surely a worthless dollar, one whose material carrier has suddenly lost all significance.
Since, with the election of Donald Trump, we are postponing for another four years any confrontation with the global disaster of climate change, we might want to start considering that six hundred trillion dollars as a sort of black hole:  the hole into which the Holocene disappeared.  I’m going to have a hard time, obviously, reading papers or thinking about “politics” over the next four years – since the headlines will be so many cocked guns placed at my ‘privileged’ head – and I can’t think I’m alone in this dilemma. Watching America under Trump will be much like cleaning up a public restroom stall that has been visited by a succession of drunks the night before. Or substitute your own image of overwhelming visceral disgust.  But I nominate for the muse of this epoch that mythical, mystical 600 trillion dollars, that impossible self-annulling sum. Someday, it will be as plain as the Jehovah’s writing on the walls of the King of Babylon: Even billionaires won’t be able to enjoy their tax breaks when we are all extinct.

And with that… Happy new years! 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Coming back to L'america

Going to France on Aer Lingus was a gas. Returning from France on Aer Lingus was, unfortunately, less gaseous. Or more, if I count my stomach. On our flight to, the plane was half empty. On our flight back, it was full of Irish moms who thought it was cute when their three or six year olds woke you up over the mid-Atlantic at what your body clock claimed was two o’clock a.m. It was like that.
In front of me, though, something interesting happened. Two guys sat down, and they quickly revealed themselves to be Bouvard and Pecuchet. The one, who I mentally nicknamed yeahyeahyeah for his habit of saying same when he allowed his seatmate to speak, began by recapping news events and quickly drifted into a soliloquy that lasted, I believe, for around three hours. He was obviously a Ted talk waiting to happen. His topics included his awesome college record, people he had met, the Spanish American war explained, how to invest, how Facebook is an awesome company, how to buy furniture, the nature of mathematics and intuition, and amazing facts you could cull from Wikipedia about ancient Greece. There wasn’t a conventional wisdom cliché that he didn’t leap at – from the fact that the Internet is about the “democratisation of knowledge” to the fact that our intuitions evolved before our mathematics did. It was as if he had swallowed the complete works of Malcolm Gladwell and was experiencing a bad case of hangover. His seatmate, who I nicknamed right right right for his habit of muttering this when yeahyeahyeah was on this or that spiel, was very impressed by the fount he found himself seated next to, and shared his own feelings about investment, buying furniture, the meaning of Trump, American foreign policy in the age of McKinley, and the whole evolution of life and mathematics conundrum. Yeahyeahyeah had one of those very male voices that cover all the crevices in audible space – he didn’t yell, but somehow his voice stuck out like a sore thumb (one that stuck itself in my ear) in the aircraft as we were all trying to find the kind of idiot movie or tv show that would lull away the tiresome hours. After this went on for literally hours, I began to develop a sort of admiration for yeahyeahyeah. Yes, 2017 will be a Trump imprinted disaster, but as long as there is a yeahyeahyeah around, it can be processed and made into an op ed; the world of cliché, mansplaining and sottise will endure. Florida may flood, and civil rights disappear, but Malcolm Gladwellism will reign, eternal, a Platonic form (Plato was born in ancient Athens, and form is one of his philosophical terms, which comes out of a story he told about a cave that proved that humans are shadows. It turns out that modern science has overturned this theory).  

Friday, December 23, 2016

Kill kill kill kill kill the poor


One of my emphases in the little book I wrote on Marx some time ago was that Marx made the great leap towards what became Marxism in  Cologne in 1842, when he became the editor of a newspaper there and did a few articles on a local controversy: the new legislative rules that eliminated the time honored custom of gathering sticks in forests owned by the great landholders.  Marx at this time was a graduate of law school. He gets it that the legislature  is creating something new here – a property – out of the denial of something old – a customary right. But it occurred to him that it was not enough to remain on the level of the law – for what was driving the legislative proces was not so much any legal confusion, or any unfolding of some previous logic in the legal code, a la Hegel, but instead, was a basic, extra-legal social force.
The custom of gathering fallen wood, as Marx came to see it, had its roots in another kind of social order. Marx latter on considered this social order as pre-capitalist,  evidently defining it from the ‘stage’ that succeeds it. However, I think it is entirely within the Marxist spirit to define it differently, as the regime of the “image of the limited good”, a phrase coined by the anthropologist George Foster to describe the image of the world inherent to those who inhabit a social economy in which economic growth is not the norm. The norm, instead, for the peasants and their governors, is of rise and fall, in which prosperity can be expected to lead to superbia, or vanity, which in turn creates the condition for the fall. The image of the limited good is congruent with the iconography of nemesis, or justice, a blindfolded figure holding a scale in which our sins and accumulations are weighed.
In this world, it makes sense to talk about the poor. There is no sense that in this world, the laborer produces such wealth as will cause economic growth to be the primary fact of the social world.  Marx, in Cologne, began to sense the meaning of this.
To put this another way:  Marx made the very important discovery that “the poor”, as a socio-economic category, was vacuous. The poor were easily recognized in pre-capitalist economies: the beggars, the serfs, the slaves, they all exist under the sign of minus. They had less, and that quantitative fact defined their social existence. What Marx saw was that capitalist society was not just a matter of old wine in new bottles – the archaic poor were now free labor. Perhaps nothing so separates Marxism from religion as  this insight: in all the great monotheistic religions, poverty is viewed in feudal terms: the poor you will have always with you. But in capitalism, or modernity tout court, the poor continue to exist as a mystificatory category, usually in a binary with the rich. In fact, the real binary in society is capital and labor. The bourgeois economists, and even the non-scientific socialists, operate as though the archaic poor still exist. To help them, we need to develop a method of redistribution that is, in essence, charity – run by non-profits or run by the government, but still charity. But Marx saw this in very different terms. Labor produces the economic foundation of capitalism – value. In these terms, it is not a question of the poor being a qualitative or moral category – it is a question of the alienation of value, of surplus value, that circulates through the entire capitalist system and allows it to grow on its own, while at the same time making it vulnerable to crisis.

Baudelaire famously created a slogan for the 1848 revolution: Assommons les pauvres. Kill the poor! This seems on the surface to be the most radical and effective of  welfare schemes, for it would get rid of the poor once and for all. But Marx explains why it wouldn’t work: the poor describes an illformed social category, a survival from the past. To kill the working class would be to kill capitalism itself. What Marx learned in the forests of Koln was that capitalism was as atheist as could be against property. Far from being founded on the defense of property, capitalism was quite comfortable with changing its definition to suit – capital. What was once a right of the “poor” – for instance, to glean windfallen branches – could be swept away with a penstroke when the large landowners so desired. What was once the very definition of property - to have the full usage of an item one buys - can suddenly be hedged round with limitations when we try, for instance, to copy it and upload it on the internet. We are suddenly deprived of the inalienable right to give our property - and this is named Intellectual Property, and a legal structure grows up around it in a heartbeat.  Property is not, then,  a constant element, but a fluid one, changing its meaning and effect with the system of production in place. To describe the poor as having little “property”, in other words, reified property, placed it outside the social, and disguised the social conflicts encoded in what property is.

Marx’s logical clarity, however, is a bit too bright even for many of his own followers, who are as prone to fall into the language of the struggle between the poor and the rich as anybody else. It is, after all, one of the richest images we have, and leads irresistibly to a one-sided discourse on equality.

One of the great contradictions of neo-liberalism is that it retains the vocabulary of the image of the limited good – “the poor” – while promoting an image of infinite growth – that is, of capitalism, with the financial sector dominant. Vox had a headline during the Democratic primaries that I thought was an exemplary reflection of this contradiction. The article criticized Sanders’ positions on trade, and the headline went: If you're poor in another country, this is the scariest thing Bernie Sanders has said. Poor here is taken as a group to which “we” must be charitable. If the headline had read, If you are an underpaid laborer in another country… the argument would have been more honest, although I am not sure the headline writer thought that he or she was being dishonest. Marx is very firm that the reserve army of the unemployed and the underpaid in all sectors are the foundations of the wealth of nations. Neoliberalism certainly recognizes their function, but disguises its intents by transforming this into a mawkish morality play.

In a sense, that headline is the exact moral antithesis to another famous slogan: workers of the world unit, you have nothing to lose but your chains.    

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

the political welfare state: why conservatives oppose political laissez faire

I've made this argument before, but it is always fun to make it again.
The electoral college is mostly treated as a political and ideological question. However, from the neo-classical economics viewpoint, it is obviously simply a question of welfare.
First, voting is, like buying and selling, an action regarding a property.
Given the rule that every citizen in a republic has the right to vote, we can treat voting in the way we treat income or earnings. The state can either lower the tax on voting - which means treated every vote the same way - or it can tax and redistribute the value of the vote.
In the electoral college, successful states are like successful corporations. They are defined by having more people. Unsuccessful states are defined by having less people. This definition ignores other standards for success, but it is functionally sound, in that those states with more people are also states that generally have higher GDPs. This is only semi-circular - although more people indicate more production, other conditions could limit the production, and thus the GDP. As it happens, though, the distribution of GDP through the fifty states corresponds closely with the population of the states.
Thus, "poor states" - those with lesser populations - would not, without the federal government intervening, have any more power than is defined by their population.
But the Electoral College changes this. Those states, like California, that are successful are taxed at a high rate politically, and the tax is given to poor states. Vis a vis Wyoming, for instance, California residents pay a seventy five percent tax - or, in other words, every vote cast by a Wyoming resident is worth three cast by a Californian.
This political welfare system, viewed in good neo-classical terms, is bound to create a system of effects - that is, of perverse incentives. A state like Kansas or Nebraska protects itself in the political market place using the welfare it is given. It entrenches itself in behaviors that lead not to successful statehood - ie more population and greater GDP, but in behaviors that continue the benefits it gets as a welfare beneficiary. Welfare discourages labor - or at least the neoclassicals assume. Political welfare discourages political labor. Nebraska or Kansas or other politically poor states are encouraged not to invest in education, or to make their states attractive to incomers, and they extend that opposition on the national level, trying to undermine states like New York or Florida or California or Texas.
This model gives us a nice fat paradox: conservative politics in the US depends, increasingly, on political welfare. In a system of political laissez faire, California would and should have a greater say simply because it has been politically successful. But conservatives oppose political laissez faire.

As we would expect, the welfare system's distentions are becoming evident and intolerable. Eventually, there will come a crash. Trump is a sign that the crash is coming.

Friday, December 16, 2016

genoa

I’m in Genoa, a city I never imagined I’d visit, even thought it is a city I have imagined. Lovely, the city, the port, the cafes, the grocery stores – food, consumption of, being the guts of tourism, museums being the eyes and brain – the wonderful colors of the houses, pastel meditteranean. If you think, as I do, that world civilization (and the at the time unnoticed end of the Holocene) began in 1492, then you have to say that Genoa has cast its shadow over the world, even if the world has not noticed it that much. I mean, the great Meditteranean Republic has never intruded its dramas on us, like Venice or Florence. The Renaissance, I’m told, has not retained much of a foothold in Genoa: a couple of streets. Nothing like the grand structures of the 19th century, Nietzsche’s Genoa.  We looked at the façade of a wonderful church, not the cathedral but nevertheless bearing, as the Baedecker Guide from 1906 puts it, alternative courses of black and white tile, which gives it a cheerful, salt/peppershaker appearance, but also having the required raft of gargoyles. I haven’t yet set foot in this or any of the older Genoese structures. But I have been thinking about cathedrals, lately, reading Hugo’s Notre Dame, which is a very diffuse novel in which long excuseses take up such questions as the meanign and function of cathedrals. Hugo is never quoted by historians or sociologists of technology, but should be: in one of his excursuses, he explains the cathedral as a devise that, though intended by function to house the worship of god, actually, through its subordinate affordances – its rose windows, its statues, its spaces, its bas reliefs, etc. – operates as a veritable book, makes legible the stories of the tribe to the people who have constructed it and come to it to worship, or simply pass by it. In Hugo’s account, the cathedral’s competitor is not the Protestant church, or anything like that, but the printed book – or, in fact, the printing press itself. This balance between cathedral and printing press, this putting them into relation, precedes and must have influenced Henry Adams Virgin and the Dynamo, and still echoes today in the banal speech of technogeeks going on about “disruption” – lacking, of course, Hugo’s leonine roar. In Hugo’s system, its rock or paper – with paper destroying rock. And, in a nice karmic yo-yo, it is now paper versus silicon – metal destroying paper.
Well, leaving these thoughts behind, we are all enjoying Italian views and speech, and thinking a bit about Nietzsche, who lived in Genoa at various high points in his life. According to the editors of his works, he at first kept his address in Genoa – the second time, though, he found lodgings in Salite della Battistini. Genoa was associated in Nietzsche’s mind with the writing of the Froehliche Wissenschaft – the Gay Science – one of his masterpieces. The Battistini is pictured here, on a site that seems to lament the Genoese forgetting of Nietzsche http://www.primocanale.it/notizie/l-oblio-di-nietzsche-tra-i-graffiti-e-l-incuria-in-salita-delle-battistine-a-genova-152109.html
Nietzsche took ship from Genoa for various trips: to Naples, or to Nice. Genoa was still a great port In the late nineteenth century, but not the port it became, according to my friend Luca, in the trentes annees glorieuses of the postwar period. Then the industry collapsed. But the port is still a major loading area. From the café on the pebbled beach where I am writing this, I can see a vast freighter out there in the water. Santa Monica, with its pleasurecraft, has been left a world  behind.  I’m told that globalisation has reached here, and that the ships I see are manned by Phillipine sailors.  The Phillipines, that far reach of the global system “discovered” by Magellan. In an exclusionary move typical of the free flow of goods and capital over our borders, these phillipine sailors don’t come ashore. They don’t get drunk and go whoring in the dark streets around the docks. There are no dark streets there. Instead, they stay on board ship, lacking the proper papers to plant their feet on Italian soil. No dancing in the street like the sailors in a musical for them! Slave labor has been replaced by contract labor, which breathes freedom, freedom and freedom to the ears of neolibs everywhere. But the freedom of contract is strangely one sided,  with the makers of the contract having all the freedom, and the signers of it having only the freedom to sign it, and undergoing its burdens after that magic moment. To oppress or compress what the contract makers can put in the contract is, as we know, the sheerest tyranny. Luckily, our globalised competitive nation states aren’t about to compell the contractors to follow the rules of human dignity.
Nietzsche felt that in Genoa he began his recuperation – from both bodily and mental sicknesses (and how he would have hated how, a hundred twenty years after him, we have so comfortably adopted the ‘metaphor’ of healing – the conjunction of the medical and the ideational, the shock derived from it, having become so banal as to bring tears to my eyes every time I hear someone use the word healing – and yet knowing that even so, a bit of enlightenment lies in the overused trope) and expressed his gratitude to Genoa in a letter to a friend, Koeselitz: And so once again I am going to try to fix myself, and Genoa seems to me the right place, three times a day my heart overflows here, with the auguring mountains in the distance and their adventurous mightyness. Here I have crowds and rest and high mountain paths and that which is even more beautiful than my dream of it, the Campo Santo. The Campo Santo was the famous Genoa cemetary, and Nietzsche shows himself to be a solid nineteenth century man with his ecstatic mention of it.

I haven’t seen it yet, and perhaps won’t.

Friday, December 09, 2016

dead nestlings

 ”A peregrine soared above the valley in the morning sunshine and the warm south breeze. I could not see it, but its motion through the sky was re­flected on the ground be­neath in the restless rising of the plover, in the white swirl of gulls, in the clat­tering grey clouds of wood pigeons, in hundreds of bright birds’ eyes look­ing upward.” – J.A. Baker, The Peregrine
On my birthday we went to see Seasons, a documentary film by the crew  - Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats and Jacques Perrin - that made my favorite nature film, Winged Migration.  As in the latter film, Seasons is full of hard to credit film – passages in animal life that seem impossibly out of reach of human perception, and yet, of course, must be commonplace among the beastly individuals themselves – from a owl waking up to catch a mouse to the last evening of a boar, separated from its fellows and chased down by wolves. It is the intimacy that is astonishing, and makes one think that surely this was somehow set up. The film has a rather unfortunate narrative structure that adheres loosely to the history of the holocene in Europe. It was filmed in various spots all over Europe, including the ever mysterious Białowieża Forest of Poland (where the last European bison roam – and where, in a typically Nazicrazy vision, Herman Goering imagined reintroducing the Auroch from the Paleolithic). For the first hour, it is just animal life in the forest, but then a platitudinous speaker intones a little history, that involves man versus nature and animals “taking refuge” in the mountains, as though they were recent casualties from the Euro and USA incited wars in the Middle East.
It is true, of course, that the wolf was hunted to near extinction in most of Europe, deliberately. On the other hand, the wolf had a good run. Far from taking refuge in the Alps, as recently as 1447 the great bobtailed Courtaud with 12 other wolves appeared outside the city of Paris ready to party on sweet Parisian flesh. He was so fierce that it took a while to figure out how to put him and his buddies down. They lived in caves in an area called Le Louvrier, and guess what famous musee occupies that spot now? In 1450 they killed 50 Parisians - and then finally they were lured to the square in front of Notre Dame, the place was blocked off, and they were slaughtered.
In fact, for those paying attention, one of the odd things about life in the US and North America is the return of the predators – wolves, coyotes,  mountain lions on the island of Vancouver, bears wandering through the suburbs of Denver. On the East coast much of the former forest land that was cut down and farmed in the 18th and 19th centuries is gone to forest again. Along with the reforestation comes the predators – much debate rages over whether the timber wolf has migrated back into its old haunts in the Northeast US.
But what impressed me about seasons was not the pitfalls of the story told by the narrator, but – as in winged migration – the sense of being intimate and equal to the animals it shows. That equality is a difficult quality to recover. Certainly the cave painters had it – if anything, they would have laughed to hear that humans are superior to the beasts. They painted relatively few human things, and many beast things, because beasts so evidently dominated the world. They still do, of course – insects will be here long after the human blip in geological history has shot its blipwad – but we have come to think of ourselves as the lords and masters.
The quote I’ve put at the beginning of this things is by the man generally agreed to be the best writer about birds, and maybe animals, ever – the reclusive J.A. Baker. Baker lived in an area of Essex that was, in the fifties and sixties, a little off the track. It comes as a bit of a shock that he worked for an automobile association. His area of the world was very small, but he kept it very well scanned, much like the peregrines he recorded in his book. Baker evidently shucked off the feeling that is instilled in us by every principle of our social being – that we are divided from and superior to  the rest of ‘nature’.  Gillian Darley, in a LRB piece, calls this “nihilism’ – which is what it must appear to us to be. Once tamper with the inequality of man to ‘nature’, and you plunge the human beasty back into the components out of which he thinks he has arisen. I – and I imagine you – will never be so nihilistic as to think I am merely the equal of a mosquito or the squirrel that sometimes flights across our porch here in Santa Monica. But although I cannot feel this equality, I rather believe it – it is the logical result of  Darwinian theory. Usually this statement is made with an aha purpose – for, unlike the squirrel, I belong to a species that has constructed Darwinian theory! Whereas if the squirrel were to reply, no doubt it would point to my comic inability to scramble up the trunk of a mimosa tree in about three seconds. And even in this imaginary dialogue, I am putting myself in the place of the squirrel, whose consciousness and standards are utterly separate from mine. We use intelligence as though it was proper to one species, and we are surrounded by beasts who are dumb humans. This of course can’t be right. It is an evolutionary crock. But we accept it.
Baker writes, however, as if he didn’t. In my quote, one notices that not only is  he aware of the peregrine falcon, but he is aware that his pair of eyes are not the only one’s in the field: there are “hundreds of bright birds’ eyes look­ing upward.” When he compares the way a peregrine falcon flies in the wind to the way an otter swims in the floods of a river, his comparison not only makes us think of the air as something liquid, but it puts the peregrine and the otter together in a world. The likeness, the metaphor, is –as is always the case – a way of worldmaking. In this way, The Peregrine is not just a book about birdwatching, but rather, it is a book about the meaning of the peregrine falcon – its significance in the small, connected  world of the Chelmsford countryside.
Like all nature writing, its exaltations ride on the back of despair. The nature of Essex was being changed brutally by the industrialization of agriculture that Marx had predicted a hundred years before. The aggregate dump of chemicals was such as to change literally everything. If you loved peregrines, you had to be aware – as Rachel Carson made us aware – that pesticides were killing them through the reproductive route. Thinner eggshells, dead peregrine nestlings. Of course, the chemical debauch of seventy years ago has continued to this day, and is now thinning our own eggshell, that climate in which we evolved and against the change of which we have developed no defense whatsoever. More Mars-like weather, dead human nestlings.

And with that, I’m ending this. Today we fly to Paris. Happy Trumpian lets shit on the planet holiday, you all!       

Saturday, December 03, 2016

RFK, the Beverly Hillbillies, and Chicago in the 60s

In 1968, Robert Kennedy made a much heralded visit to Eastern Kentucky. He’s interviewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1DK2hiEm1g It is a flashback to a time when Democratic politicians were not full of mush in their mouth (human capital, retraining, green jobs), but said things like look at how wealthy we are, and look how poor our citizens live, and this reflects on all of us.
At the same time, of course, popular culture was nattering on libidinously and nastily, as it does. In 1968, the Beverly Hillbillies was in its sixth season. What Amos and Andy was to African Americans, the Beverly Hillbillies was to poor white folks.
In Chicago, Studs Terkel had found thousands of poor white folks from the South crowding the North side. They lived below the belt of affluent white suburbs – where Hillary Clinton grew up. The mainstream idea is that black and white are two lumps, each homogenous in itself. But we know that this isn’t so – we’ve seen the Beverly Hillbillies, for instance. Clinton’s problem with a certain group of white midwesterners is always approached in term of the white working class, and never approached in terms of the relatively recent relocation to the Midwest of millions of Southern and Appalachian whites, just in time for the great slowdown of the seventies and the great trade sellouts of the nineties.
Racism becomes a variable that reflects the resentment of a white working force that started out as a disdained but useful working force for the white middle class. In reality, those wealthy suburbs have long found ways to protect themselves from integration. Terkel interviewed one ostracized Evanston homeowner, Mrs. James Winslow, who, with her husband, fought to integrate the more prosperous neighborhoods of Evanston – but in vain: “The Winslows were becomoing profoundly disquieted, especially in the matter of housing. One of his Negro clients  - there  were few Negro lawyers in the suburb – was denied the right to add a bbathroom to his house by the zoning board. “Why in the world would the board not allow a Negro to upgrade his home?” Further study revealed that not one Negro block was zoned for single-family dwellings. “Yet this was Evanston’s great drawing card…’”

The million and one tricks of deniability have become familiar and wearisome to us all. It is a system that points to the dissipation of the feeling of race hatred while, at the same time, creating a labyrinthian structure to maintain racism’s historic product.  So, at the same time this structure deflected racism into a matter of sentiments – of heart – it sought out the actors of that hate and found them in poor whites. Meanwhile, poor whites saw that they were being systematically excluded from the neighborhoods and institutions by the movers and shakers of such places as Evanston, and came to the conclusion that these people were making the “government” for the blacks. Illusions and delusions in social life have effects that are as real as any other social force.  In many ways – and here I am going to engage in pure speculation – Clinton’s difficulty finding the correct tone in the Midwest and Pennsylvania (a state where her family had a summer house when she was growing up) can, perhaps, be tied to the perplexities of trying to navigate the conservative but happy and prosperous upbringing she had in an all white upper middle class Chicago suburb and the reality of the Chicago of which it was a satellite. We all know the literature produced by the Midwesterner who goes to the East Coast – Sinclair Lewis,Scott Fitzgerald, Dawn Powell, and even Jonathan Franzen. But how about the Midwesterner who returns from the East Coast? This was the story – or one of the stories – in which Clinton was entangled.    

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

the low use population of chicago, or the long roots of the Clinton debacle

A couple of months ago, we were riding on the new tram which goes from Santa Monica to downtown LA. The route passes by the USC campus. A guy on the tram began to talk to us about the neighborhood. He was a young black guy, who’d been raised in the USC neighborhood. If you have seen the neighborhood around USC, you’ll be struck by the fact that it is very multi-ethnic and working class. According to the guy on the tram, there used to be a pro-USC spirit in the neighborhood. It isn’t that a lot of people could afford to go to USC – but they could afford to go to USC games, and they felt like USC was part of the neighborhood. USC, however, had other thoughts, and has begun a process that rich universities love to engage in, of expansion and squeeze. You can no longer go to USC events, and you can go and shout at meetings against USC plans for expansion but those meetings are run by supposedly “liberal” types who are totally psyched about the prospect of gentrification and USC expansion.
There’s been a lot of political archaeology done about the connections between slavery and certain US universities. But the urban “renewal” of the 50s and 60s in which universities were weapons aimed at cleaning out neighborhoods on a vast scale has not been given its due. If liberal elites live in a “bubble”, the armored part of that bubble is the physical facility of the university and the insatiable drive to expand.
In Chicago, the Daly administration, in the early sixties, felt that the city deserved a great public university. Not surprisingly, the site chosen for the new University of Illinois – Chicago was not among the wealthy neighborhoods or sububs – there was not a chance that Park Ridge, where Hugh Rodham, Hilary Clinton’s father, and his family lived,  was going to come under the gun. Park Ridge had in fact grown up in the comfort of racial restrictions that were put in place in 1926 and kept in place since then that essentially barred black homeownership. As a result, the band of wealthy suburbs north of Chicago was almost entirely white. A recent study claimed that even now, the wealthy suburbs are 2 percent black. Diversity there is almost entirely due to a large increase in the Asian population.  http://patch.com/illinois/winnetka/bp--african-americans-remain-few-in-the-northern-suburbs
What happens when a supposedly liberal city government proposes to bulldoze a multi-ethnic neighborhood with, at its symbolic center, one of the great monuments of the progressive era, Hull House? What happens, as the residents were shocked to discover, is that the board members of Hull House, who didn’t live in the neighborhood and were, for the most part, affluent liberals, would side with the city and promote the destruction of their own monument.
The reverberation of that struggle begins Division Street. Terkel signals what he is doing by interviewing Florence Scala, the woman who organized the neighborhood against its multi-ethnic cleansing, and who later ran for office as an independent against the district’s council member. Interestingly, the working class John Bircher that Terkel interviewed, Dennis Hart, voted in that election for Florence Scala, who by any measure was to far to the left on the political spectrum. In miniature, what Terkel was looking at in 1966 has been playing itself  out nationally in our politics  for decades.
What Scala says at the beginning  of her interview is a sort of creed that must have resonated with Terkel and his whole reason for doing the book:  “I grew up around Hull House, one of the oldest sections of the city. In those early days I wore blinders. I wasn’t hurt by anything very much. When you become involved, you begin to feel the hurt, the anger. You begin to think of people like Jane Addams and Jessie Binford [an activist associated with Hull House who fought with Scala] and you realize why they were able to live on. They understood how weak we really are and how we could strive for something better if we understood the way. “
There is something of the clash between the centrists and the left in the Democratic party now in this long ago drama. This is how Scala discovered that liberals are not your friend:
“A member of the Hull House Board took me to lunch a couple of times at the University Club. My husband said, go, go, have a free lunch and see what it is she wants. What she wanted me to do, really, was to dissuade me from protesting. There was no hope, no chance, she said.
I shall never forget one board meeting. It hurt Miss Binford more than all the others. That afternoon, we came with a committee, five of us, and with a plea. We remended them of the past, what we meant to each other. From the moment we entered the room to the time we left, not one board member said a word to us.
Miss Binford was in her late eighties. Small, birdlike in appearance. She sat there listening to our plea and then she reminded them of what Hull House meant. She talked about principles that must never waver. No one answered her. Or acknowledged her. Or in any way showed any recognition of what she was talking about. It's as though we were talking to a stone wall, a mountain. The shock of not being able to have any conversation with the board members never really left her. She felt completely rejected. Something was crushed inside her. The Chicago she knew had died.”
Neighborhoods with European immigrants of all kinds like this one were thrown on the trash heap by urbanists in the 50s. There was an overriding, but unpronounced, idea that the cities were vast targets – as they had been in the War – and you had to separate out what the AEC at the time, in a secret memo, called the “low use” population from the high enders. Whether it was the low use population getting whacked with fallout in St. George, Utah, or the Greeks, Blacks, Italians etc. in the Hull House neighborhoods, the same logic applied. A stone wall indeed.


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Medium cool: the Chicago Clinton grew up in, and Obama organized

In the documentary American Revolution 2, there is an incredible scene in which a white Appalachian labor group hosts a speech by a Black Panther, Bobby Lee. The time is 1968, and the place is Chicago. And this isn’t an accident.  Nor is it an accident that these were white Appalachians. We all know about the Great Migration, where black people fled from hard apartheid in the South to soft apartheid in the North. Less vivid in the national imagination was the flight of the white proletariat from the South – West Virginia, Kentucky, Southern Illinois, etc.  In the 1960s, this was not a blank in our national imagination, but a reality that any community organizer had to deal with, and any business, small or large, took the opportunity to exploit. In Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (which my friend Scott Saul, the guy who wrote Becoming Richard Pryor, had me watch), one of the enduring motifs is the relationship between the reporter and this very southern accented poor white woman. I’m pretty sure Wexler must have read StudsTerkel’s Division Street, since the sociological spread in the film uncannilyparallels the book.  

It is more of a coincidence, perhaps, that our last election, the Democratic candidate,  Hillary Clinton, was born in a Chicago suburb, Park Ridge.  And that our current president, Barak Obama, was a community organizer in Chicago. It is odd that this has gotten so little play, as there are differences in styles between Clinton and Obama  which, to my mind, evoke the different voices that Terkel captured in his book, and which have falsely been generalized as simply feminine and masculine (as though these large structures thoroughly capture a negative twenty questions space – the space of identity). In Terkel's book, you get a strong sense of the difference between growing up in a wealthy Chicago suburb and organizing a working class Chicago neighborhood. Which I want to get to.


Terkel begins his book with some interviews connected to a community issue that makes stark divides that cropped up in the Democratic primary. In the early sixties, Chicago boosters wanted a state university in Chicago. They settled on a multi-ethnic neighborhood that was around the Hull House complex, famously associated with Jane Addams. You couldn’t get more symbolic in pitting the technocratic liberal against the old movement liberal. Terkel interviewed a remarkable activist, Florence Scala, who campaigned vainly against the urban clearing.  And I’ll take it from there in my next post. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

studs terkel and negative 20 questions liberalism


There’s a party game called twenty questions. One person goes out of the room, and the people in the room then discuss among themselves and choose an object in the room. Then the person is recalled, and he asks the people in the room up to twenty questions – classically, of the kind : is it bigger than a breadbox – in order to guess the object. John Wheeler, the physicist, spun off another game that he claimed was closer to the quantum world, or what at least it meant to investigate the quantum world. The structure of sending a person outside of the room remains constant. What this person doesn’t know, however, is that in this version of the game, all the people in the room pick their objects and don’t speak to each other. When the questioner is called in and asks the questions – for instance, is it bigger than a breadbox – the person who answers changes the object, in as much as his reply makes the other people in the room silently repick their object. So say x has chosen a matchbox and y has chosen a sofa, if the questioner asks x if it is bigger than a breadbox (to which x says no), then y has to quickly chose some other object (which may be the matchbox or may be a match, etc) in order to remain consistent with the line of questioning.
To my mind, conventional wisdom in the 20th century in America was largely concerned with the orthodox 20 questions game. In this game, identities of race or gender or class were agreed upon tacitly by everyone – or so the conventional wise men, the press guys, the politicos, the influential sociologists and economists, claimed. But we have reached a point that the recent election has made clearer. All the time, we have been playing negative 20 questions. Our assumption, for instance, that women identify with women, is an orthodox 20 questions truth, which is shattered in a negative 20 questions world.  
However, the counter-cultural narrative in America has long been one in which it is obvious that we are a negative 20 questions nation. The most interesting liberals – people like Ralph Ellison or John Kenneth Galbraith or Rachel Carson – saw this clearly. So, in fact, did certain rightwingers, even as they held to a creed that said that the negative 20 question world was the world turned upside down, one without a natural order. The rightwing text par excellence, here, was Eliot’s The Wasteland.
Wheeler claimed that the most common pattern, in negative 20 questions, was for the answering side to break down. Imagine that the answerers are expanded to 3 or more and you can see why. The answerers must not only process new information, but they must perform that rarest of human abilities: logical improvisation.  In our own lives we invariably trade freedom for routine. Humankind seems not able to withstand too many negative 20 questions sessions. And yet, routine isn’t easy. It is based on agreements that we tend to believe are solid, but that can vanish in the space of a lifetime, or even a fashion season.

One of the great decades in the 20th century – the 60s – seemed, to those most politically or culturally active in it, to be a vast negative 20 questions session. I’ve been thinking about the liberal response then, and now. In particular, I’ve been thinking about Studs Terkel’s Division Street (1967). Terkel began  working on the book at the suggestion of a publisher who had read Jan Myrdal’s Report from a Chinese Village, which consisted of oral accounts of the Cultural Revolution in a Chinese village. Terkel at this time was a well known figure in the Chicago media world. He had a regular radio show. He was a bit afraid that he was too well known, but found out that, fortunately and humblingly, he was not as well known as all that. His plan was to find one street that would go through rich neighborhoods and poor ones, black and white ones, etc. He discovered there was no such street. So, he divided the oral histories up into both the sociological litany of class, race, sex, and the geography of the city of Chicago, wherte there were distinct differences between, say, the South neighborhoods and the North. I’d urge you to generally skip the fast sociology of trumpland now being conducted in the papers and go to Division Street to get ahold of phenomena that have been with us at least since the sixties – the working class Goldwater freak, the activist who came up against liberal blindness when it came to “urban renewal”, etc.  I think I’m going to write at least another post about the book, cause it is of a richness...

studs terkel and negative 20 questions liberalism


There’s a party game called twenty questions. One person goes out of the room, and the people in the room then discuss among themselves and choose an object in the room. Then the person is recalled, and he asks the people in the room up to twenty questions – classically, of the kind : is it bigger than a breadbox – in order to guess the object. John Wheeler, the physicist, spun off another game that he claimed was closer to the quantum world, or what at least it meant to investigate the quantum world. The structure of sending a person outside of the room remains constant. What this person doesn’t know, however, is that in this version of the game, all the people in the room pick their objects and don’t speak to each other. When the questioner is called in and asks the questions – for instance, is it bigger than a breadbox – the person who answers changes the object, in as much as his reply makes the other people in the room silently repick their object. So say x has chosen a matchbox and y has chosen a sofa, if the questioner asks x if it is bigger than a breadbox (to which x says no), then y has to quickly chose some other object (which may be the matchbox or may be a match, etc) in order to remain consistent with the line of questioning.
To my mind, conventional wisdom in the 20th century in America was largely concerned with the orthodox 20 questions game. In this game, identities of race or gender or class were agreed upon tacitly by everyone – or so the conventional wise men, the press guys, the politicos, the influential sociologists and economists, claimed. But we have reached a point that the recent election has made clearer. All the time, we have been playing negative 20 questions. Our assumption, for instance, that women identify with women, is an orthodox 20 questions truth, which is shattered in a negative 20 questions world.  
However, the counter-cultural narrative in America has long been one in which it is obvious that we are a negative 20 questions nation. The most interesting liberals – people like Ralph Ellison or John Kenneth Galbraith or Rachel Carson – saw this clearly. So, in fact, did certain rightwingers, even as they held to a creed that said that the negative 20 question world was the world turned upside down, one without a natural order. The rightwing text par excellence, here, was Eliot’s The Wasteland.
Wheeler claimed that the most common pattern, in negative 20 questions, was for the answering side to break down. Imagine that the answerers are expanded to 3 or more and you can see why. The answerers must not only process new information, but they must perform that rarest of human abilities: logical improvisation.  In our own lives we invariably trade freedom for routine. Humankind seems not able to withstand too many negative 20 questions sessions. And yet, routine isn’t easy. It is based on agreements that we tend to believe are solid, but that can vanish in the space of a lifetime, or even a fashion season.

One of the great decades in the 20th century – the 60s – seemed, to those most politically or culturally active in it, to be a vast negative 20 questions session. I’ve been thinking about the liberal response then, and now. In particular, I’ve been thinking about Studs Terkel’s Division Street (1967). Terkel began  working on the book at the suggestion of a publisher who had read Jan Myrdal’s Report from a Chinese Village, which consisted of oral accounts of the Cultural Revolution in a Chinese village. Terkel at this time was a well known figure in the Chicago media world. He had a regular radio show. He was a bit afraid that he was too well known, but found out that, fortunately and humblingly, he was not as well known as all that. His plan was to find one street that would go through rich neighborhoods and poor ones, black and white ones, etc. He discovered there was no such street. So, he divided the oral histories up into both the sociological litany of class, race, sex, and the geography of the city of Chicago, wherte there were distinct differences between, say, the South neighborhoods and the North. I’d urge you to generally skip the fast sociology of trumpland now being conducted in the papers and go to Division Street to get ahold of phenomena that have been with us at least since the sixties – the working class Goldwater freak, the activist who came up against liberal blindness when it came to “urban renewal”, etc.  I think I’m going to write at least another post about the book, cause it is of a richness...

Sunday, November 27, 2016

visions of atlanta have now conquered my mind

Back from Atlanta. Something weird was going with Nature so far as we saw it driving from our rental in Decatur to Gwinnett to visit my brothers: although I was assured on all sides that Atlanta was dry as a bone and undergoing a drought; though Stone Mountain park, for the first time in my memory, was banning grills, bringing about a once in a lifetime event of a hotdog and hamburgerless Park; though I’d been told of ominous fires in the forests north and east of the Metro area; the leaves were spectacular. In the Vermont category. Supposedly, leaf color depends on a well watered spring and summer, or so I’ve been told. Nonetheless, everywhere (and I mean everywhere, as Atlanta sometimes seems more like an inhabited forest than a metropolis) trees were flaunting extraordinary yellows and oranges and reds.
I’m not complaining, mind. I loved it. This was planned to be a heavy family week, Thanksgiving and a memorial service for my old man. Both, against the betting, went off splendidly and even – another anomolous event for a Gathmann gathering – with little discussion of politics. I guess it was a case of what’s to discuss, since nobody in my family voted for Trump and even those who voted for third parties expected Trump to lose. But we did discuss our dad, digging up some good memories. And we ate, all too much. It is hard to visit with one’s extended family without every meeting devolving into breakfast, lunch or dinner. I imagine that if there was some large scale that we could have all stood on, we’d judge this family gathering as a fifty pounder, that being how much extra weight all fourteen of us probably put on – or even a hundred. We did make time to go to our fave breakfast place, the Flying Biscuit, which is a little too enamored of its clever way with grits – but they are excellent grits. Adam had a very good time with his uncles and aunts, and entertained them with his one joke, which has to do with the similarity in sound between scrambled eggs and crème brule (you have to hear it as Adam does) by repeating it a hundred times.
Generally, I think Atlanta is a much  better place now  than it was when I was a sullen teen caught in its precincts. And Gwinnett becoming a multyculty democratic voting county does blow my mind. Gwinnett has roads and parks named after Ronald Reagan – a slap at Jimmy Carter – which were so denominated by the GOP dominated County commission. But now that the Dems are on top, it won’t be long until cracker heads are blown by Obama roads and Obama parks.

Remember, Trump is an interval of winter, and not the ice age. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Kardashians: one billion sold since 2002!

I did get a smile this morning on the Kanye news front. Ah, those Kardashians! They are to scandal like Ray Kroc was to the hamburger. Kanye, admittedly, spoils it somewhat by having a talent. But as a crooner, he was never going to get flashed on US, People Inclose and numerous others. I've noticed, however, that the K's have peaked - I think probably it was Kim's butt pic, which made her the toast of the Miami-Basel art fair. However, by number of covers or even inset cover stories, I've noticed a really sharp fall in Kardashian stories. Kanye's Trump love might revive the spark for a moment. Maybe it is time for Kim to argue with him, in some swank restaurant, and then the separation, and then the divorce. Of course, they are being overshadowed by the Angelina Brad divorce, and we have to remember that their string is old. The shows canceled, Bruce's sex change is last year, and we have put in power a reality tv guy whose staff and cabinet are looking like an old Jerry Springer special (Neo Nazi bikers and their cheating wives!), I've grown fond of Kim - the other Ks are, lets be frank, pretty minor. On their own, the weight, the divorces, the fashion lines would all flop. Britney Spears, another crooner, was really complexed by the scandals she caused. They dug into her life and she was hurt. The remarkable thing about the Kardashians is that you can dig into their life as much as you like, but you'll find it is pretty numb - in fact, tv and life have merged here.
So, anyway, Kanye has done his bit. It is a reminder that the American carnival is still going strong. It has to be good for our Balance of Trade!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

rule by humiliation: whose next to lick Trump's asshole?

The press still doesn't have a clue about our Grand Wizard. Their normalization of Trump is par for the course: the media bends over backwards to power. The kind of court society that La Bruyere anatomized in Louis 14th's day is alive and well in D.C. But the press's impulse is to attribute everything to being right or left, to having a theory. Trump don't play that game. His game is: humiliation. The subgroup of Romney voters who voted for him have long sought this, above all things - to humiliate their opponents. The deal is, the thirst to humiliate your opponents, after a while, becomes a whole politics of humiliation. It isn't enough to humiliate your opponent, you crave humiliation in itself. Thus, whether Ryan gets through his plan to privatize medicare depends less on whether he can convince the Kluxxers about Trump of its benefits, than upon whether Ryan needs another dose of humiliation or not. Christie, for instance, has staked his political life upon Trump. Alas, Trump decided he needed to be humiliated. Without warning, hey presto, he's fired and Pence is put into place as head of the transition team. I wonder if Trump even bothered to call him. It isn't just the Dems, or the nation, that is now Trump's bitch. Its the GOP. There are stories of Huey Long's love of humiliating his allies, and of LBJ. Supposedly, LBJ liked to humiliate Bill Moyers, then his aide, by commanding hims to give a report to LBJ while LBJ sat on a toilet and unloaded his barbecue. Trump is, of course, dumber than shit. LBJ was smart, and concerned with politics, But if you can imagine Trump as calling in all of us, every American, to surround him while he takes a dump - you'd have an accurate image of how the next four years will go, And, due to the spending Trump seems apt to spring, we will at the same time have a boom, which GOP people will point to to say, the Grand Wizard was right! Bush engineered one via the same means. Suck out the credit of the masses, then bust em - that is the game that is going to be played at a faster tempo, especially since they don't have that many assets left. Meanwhile what happens at least on the GOP side will depend on who needs to be humiliated next. I don't see Ryan faring very well in this environment, unless he can make his act of licking Trump's asshole extremely convincing.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

election thoughts - on the Clinton campaign

I just have to get this off my chest. I voted for Clinton, and I believed the polls, so I’m shocked. It is worth while playing the tape again so that we can see how we got here. In other words, how did Clinton lose?
The first reaction of the Dem fluffer league was that it must be the evil Green Party. This excuse makes me want to cry. That is like saying that it is all because of the Republican party. If only she ran unopposed, this would never have happened! Guess what? As the Green party has made abundantly clear over the years, it is a party and will go everywhere for votes on election day. If the Clinton campaign people did not know this and plan for it, then it is on the Clinton campaign people. The merest baby knew it. You can deal with it by trying to pursuade people from that tiny party to vote for you, or you can try to get your people in greater numbers to vote for you. If you aim for the former, here’s some advice: don’t think you will get anywhere by shaming. What didn’t work over the last four elections probably isn’t going to work in this one.
I’ve been thinking, to move onto a more serious note, about the fact that 55 percent of white women didn’t vote for Clinton – that is, who voted.
That’s an interesting stat. If 55 percent of African Americans had not voted for Obama, he would never have been president.
So why? What failed here?
I think one thing that failed was that the campaign idea to feature Clinton as a model woman – a mother, a wife, a grandmother – carrying Susan B. Anthony’s torch ignored the fact, was blind to the fact, that one thing about Clinton’s life that we all know is that he husband is very publically unfaithful to her. I can’t imagine anybody in the campaign wanted to confront her on this, but if you are going to run on a personal story, you are going to drag into that personnal story what people know about you. Perhaps in the 50s and 60s, the stand by your man thing would have seemed heroic. In 2016, it just seems weird.  Why would a woman who stands for feminism seemingly never retaliate,  or free herself? Perhaps even so the campaign could have worked if she hadn’t been running against Trump. There was a Saturday night live skit where the Hillary character shows hilarious steeliness about Trump bringing Bill’s ex “mistresses” to the debate. It was funny, but it was funny puzzling. If we are “with her”, what’s the deal with such public humiliation? What kind of her is this?
I am nobody to judge Hillary Clinton. We make all kinds of decisions in our personal life. But you can’t have it both ways – you can’t put up your personal life as a political advertisement and then be simply silent about a very well known fact about it.
Even if this were not the case, Clinton certainly should have torn a page out of Obama’s book and made some speech about what it means to run as a woman. In Obama’s case, it was about the moral grounding of our history and its direction – how white and black could meet finally as equals and partners in a political struggle. It was brilliant. Clinton, foregrounding gender, then sort of let it hang therre, as if it was a given that we all know about. This was not not not good. It was perceived as arrogant, I’m sure, by women who would otherwise have loved to hear about this. And men too. It might have been corny, it might have been the kind of thing that would make my teeth grind, but I think it definitely should have been done. If one of your attractions as a candidate is your gender, you can’t just be all I’m with her, you have to get down to brass tacks. It took Michelle Obama, way too late in the campaign, to address this.
Then there was the odd, in retrospect, idea that the Dems just didn’t have to worry about their base states. Huh? Given the poll numbers, even at the time, it made no sense to concentrate so much on, like, North Carolina. That was fruitless. Clinton didn’t need an overwhelming victory, she needed a victory, and the states she needed she should have hit. Instead, Florida – from what I’ve read about the get out the vote there – was haphazard, and Pennsylvania was an afterthought. Michigan, which she lost to Sanders, was really necessary, but the Clinton campaign seemed oblivious. All the shit about Putin was of concern to a lot of D.C. journalists, but otherwise of no interest to the country at large. But China and the trade deficit and the currency manipulation – now these were areas to plunge into. I have a great fear that the Clinton campaign was sotto voce about trade cause they plannned to do the TPP once in office. I don’t understand that at all. Obama won those Midwest states by taking apart Romney, and sometimes it seems like Clinton was runnig as Romney, spending more time fundraising among the ultrarich than staying on the trail. Just borrow the fucking money shoulda been the motto.
That leads to my final bit. All campaigns have a narcissistic end – the campaign about the campaign. Usually this happens when the whole thing is winding down. But I think the shambles of the DNC and the Podesta organizations were much more focused on their own navels than on what was happening. Every day that Clinton was not in the headlines, and Trump was, was a bad day for Clinton. The strategy seemed to be – let him kill himself. But by the time Trump was nominated, it was obvious this strategy didn’t work. Instead, his domination of the headlines was becoming a sort of Fuehrer thing. That’s why keeping the press at arm’s length was, frankly, insane. Clinton might hate the press, but you gotta make a lotta noise if you are going to keep viable.
In as much as Clinton was part of these decisions, she is to blame. But really, she was paying a lot of money to campaign people whose job was to lead her away from mistakes. Instead, they seemed to participate in them. It was like they thought it was 1996.

It wasn’t. It’s 1984, alas.        

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

non president hilary clinton and dialectical feminism

The analytic bug... Hmm, it tickles. Anyway, I'm going to give in and say something about sexism that may well reveal my own sexism. I define sexism, by the way, as acting against sexism, no noble feelings rot counts.
During this election, on twitter, I followed Rebecca Traister, a journalist I respect. And I saw in her threads, very often, make statements about what Clinton wasn't "allowed", or couldn't "get to do", because of sexism. For instance, today: "God I wish she were allowed to just cry like the rest of us."  
Now this might seem like it is bashing sexism, being critical of the mass of sexism in the populace, etc. Traister could easily point to people threatening her, physically, using the word bitch or cunt, etc. So she is right, sexism exacts a price from every woman. But to my mind, under the surface, this kind of rhetoric just enables sexism. In fact, one of Clinton's problems as a politician is/ was that I think she hears a lot of this kind of talk. It made her shorten her punches, or not do things because the sexists out there wouldn't "allow" it.
But in fact the only way to blow the sexists out of there is to do precisely that. To show emotion, to cry or laugh, to not be "tough" - these may, or no, will evoke vile sexist comments. But there is no way that the vile sexist commenters are going to be appeased. Seventies feminists - dialectical feminists - saw the bind between criticizing sexism and practically reinforcing its dictums very well.
In fact, Clinton would not be a rich, famous and important woman if she was not always doing things that "aren't allowed". If she allowed her public persona to be governed by a strategy that cedes the right to self imaging to the sexist, she is not only not being "allowed", she is retreating. The scriptedness, the self-imaging along the most conservative lines, takes away the politicians best tool. Trump, an idiot in so many ways, knows people love self-fashioning - at least for a while. 

I am hoping that the next woman to run for president is not surrounded by enablers of sexism. It is ruinous. 
I think, in the end, this goes back to a patriarchal trope that Americans swallow whole: permanent strength. Strength and toughness are always good. Losers and whiners are always bad. We want our women "strong". As in a Hollywood action flick.
I think that's shorthand for fascism.When we are weak, we are "allowed" to be weak. In fact, often it is the appropriate response. The cult of toughness aborts one's feelings until the feelings abort themselves. Fuck that. Obama had his moments, and the one thing I really adored in him was that he was very low on the tough talk scale. He saw sometimes that the better move was to be weak. An unacceptable thought in hypermasculinized DC.

Monday, November 07, 2016

President Hillary Clinton and epistocracy in that order

I was so hoping the Trump sex tape would turn up by now. It is surely out there. Well, no sex tape. No joy! 

Anyway, I am going to start calling her President Clinton, cause it is all over save the vote suppression - which is not going to save the KKK's favorite candidate. But more sadly, I suspect that the Dems are not going to get past 49 in the Senate.


So, turning aside to Caleb Crain's review of Jason Brennan's book, Against Democracy - it does sound like Jason Brennan is full of bad bad arguments. Crain ropes him in with Bryan Caplen, the libertarian economist from Koch, er George Mason University - Crain stints on the background and just calls him an "economist", although I'd bet cash money that if Bryan Caplen were a Marxist economist, that fact would be mentioned. As a former reviewer myself - hey, I've got at least four hundred reviews under my belt, so I am not talking about one piece on a list serv or something - I count points off. Reviewing is much like wrestling, in that the points are awarded for things that the spectators can't quite see. Anyway, I was surprised that the review of the Brennan book, which really, really sound irritating, said absolutely zip about the concentration of power that goes along with Brennan's technocratic wetdream. Whereas in the 70s, Foucault savaged the kind of disciplinary society propelled, in part, by institutionilzed expertise, in the nudgery 10s, we find it getting a lot of neo-lib love. The first move is to take at face value polls about content, which supposedly display the vast ignorant of the American boobs out there. Of course, no parallel polls are ever taken about the knowledge of such bright beacons as Brennan about the experience of working class folks out there. For instance, what number of black households are in the top one percent? And what number of whites? What is the colloquial name for the stretch between East Baton Rouge and New Orleans? etc., etc.
Stories about technocratic power in the US tend to be pretty dystopian. Crain doesn't seem to have any of them at his fingertips, meaning that he has a nice ignorance of American history, one usually repandu among the centrist-liberal reviewer crowd. It isn't as if democracy has not been kicked in the teeth in the American experience about a million times. Crain does even refer to the eugenics programs that the US used to be no. 1 in, until Nazi Germany, admiring our policies, took away the crown. For, after all, if people who are ignorant about who the VP is (and who know silly things like the fact that the concentration of carcinogens in the area around East Baton Rouge all along the east bank of the Mississippi has earned it the name Cancer Alley) shouldn't vote, but should trust experts - well, why should they be allowed to have children. Crain doesn't advance even gingerly into the topic, although the topic cries out for it. Points off, points off!
There's a weird American tendency to reduce history to one's personal experience.If I wasn't born in 1910, then I am supposed to know nothing of 1920 or 30. I suppose this tendency moves in tandem with the idea that novels are all about the author who wrote them. However, this is definitely a standard that the reviewer should shun. 'You had to be there' is the deathknell of the historical consciousness. I do wish Crain had seized the elevation of nudgery to "epistocracy" and given it a rougher, much rougher, shake, with examples from the entire history of so called democratic societies.
Oh well.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

On voting for Clinton and watching "Weiner", the documentary

I did two things yesterday. I mailed in my vote for Clinton. And I watched Weiner, the documentary.
The latter was a mistake.
It – the whole it of it – reminded me of the one and only time I watched COPS. Cops was obviously a lineal descendent of the lynching postcard. Americans used to enjoy their lynchings, and liked nothing better than photographing themselves stringing up, pouring hot tar over, or castrating black men.  If you have ever seen a “postcard of the hanging” – to quote Dylan – you will notice the hectic, satisfied faces of the spectators. Looking is an act.
Weiner plays with different spectorial pleasures, but it also operates within the condition that the spectator is not at all implicated by the scene. But the spectator is. Watching Weiner and his wife Huma Abadin was painful – these people have grown up without any consciousness of the complicity of the spectator.  A documentary is a picture document, watch it, is  probably what went through their minds when, for giggles, or thinking that this would cement their celebrity, they agreed to this mess.  Clinton should have let Abadin go as soon as she heard about the project. But she didn’t. So here is Weiner, coming from a valid premise – that we organize our lives around a set of segregations, putting fantasy in this corner, and our ideas of tax policy in this corner – and refusing with all his might to see that this set of segregations is conditional. In fact, his campaign for mayor was a vast effort to project onto the city at large his notion that the segregation of fantasy and reason is absolute, and privileged. Abadin seems to believe the same thing, oddly enough.  And the filmmakers condition their film on showing the breakdown of this belief without ever questioning their own belief that they are just filming.
It is a swamp of bad faith – no, it is the great dismal swamp of bad faith, the Offeefenokee of bad faith. The Everglades.
One and only one fact pertinent to our civil life comes out of the film, which is that the Weiner couple had ample resources, enough at the very least to allow each partner to BUY THEIR OWN FUCKING LAPTOP!  Like, who shares a laptop? So why Weiner and Abedin ended up using the same laptop, why Abedin’s emails end up mixed in with Weiner’s sexting, is a mystery. I feel for Abedin, less because she married the wrong man – these things happen – then because she has apparently given her life to the Clintons. To be absorbed in the ego of an oligarchic couple is an unbelievable waste of a life.  Unfortunately, in this case, one member of the couple is going to be President. Painful as if is not to have your factotum at your heels at all hours, it is pretty obvious that Abedin needs to be let go. I don’t believe Clinton is going to lose, not to Trump, but definitely Abedin has sacrificed three percentage points in the victory, which could be life or death for many downticket candidates.

At the moment, Clinton might have no choice but to keep Abedin. But she needs to get rid of her, just as LBJ needed to get rid of Bobby Baker. Politics aint beanbag. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Engels and song culture: you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows .

The recent incomprehension event - the puzzlement of some commenters that the Nobel prize could go to a songwriter, and the equally flatheaded defense of Dylan as a poet - made me want to dig up old posts I wrote about song culture. A culture that has been significantly underrated or ignored in the cultural history of modernism. In particular, there is this bit from Engels that I liked... but here's the post I wrote in 2008.

From the perspective of the nineteenth century worker, there is something mocking, something a little satanic about freedom, as it was presented in the establishment discourse. Freedom, of course, comes with contracts – but what contracts! On the one side, the employer was in the position of seemingly having no limit to the things he could require of the laborer. On the other side, the laborer was blamed for not adhering to every tittle and jot of the employer’s dictate. From the perspective of the intellectual, society was making a Faustian pact with technology and industry. From the perspective of the worker, it wasn’t Faustian at all, but reeked of sulfur in the old, old way: the devil required infinite pain in this life, on penalty of losing life altogether without him. In the Position of the Working Class, Engels indicts the order of life required of the laborer in the factory by giving examples of the rules he or she had to follow, under threat of fine or dismissal: 


“What a time the worker has of it, too, inside the factory! Here the employer is absolute law-giver; he makes regulations at will, changes and adds to his codex at pleasure, and even, if he inserts the craziest stuff, the courts say to the working-man:
"You were your own master, no one forced you to agree to such a contract if you did not wish to; but now, when you have freely entered into it, you must be bound by it."
And so the working-man only gets into the bargain the mockery of the Justice of the Peace who is a bourgeois himself, and of the law which is made by the bourgeoisie. Such decisions have been given often enough. In October, 1844, the operatives of Kennedy’s mill, in Manchester, struck. Kennedy prosecuted them on the strength of a regulation placarded in the mill, that at no time more than two operatives in one room may quit work at once. And the court decided in his favour, giving the working-men the explanation cited above. And such rules as these usually are! For instance: 1. The doors are closed ten minutes after work begins, and thereafter no one is admitted until the breakfast hour; whoever is absent during this time forfeits 3d. per loom. 2. Every power-loom weaver detected absenting himself at another time, while the machinery is in motion, forfeits for each hour and each loom, 3d. Every person who leaves the room during working- hours, without obtaining permission from the overlooker, forfeits 3d. 5. Weavers who fail to supply themselves with scissors forfeit, per day, 1d. 4. All broken shuttles, brushes, oil-cans, wheels, window-panes, etc., must be paid for by the weaver. 5. No weaver to stop work without giving a week’s notice. The manufacturer may dismiss any employee without notice for bad work or improper behaviour. 6. Every operative detected speaking to another, singing or whistling, will be fined 6d.; for leaving his place during working-hours, 6d.”

The notion that the owner has complete freedom to put anything in a contract he feels like putting in – that in fact, this is the alpha and omega of freedom, the unmediated power relationship between owner and worker - is still a powerful one in the U.S. Some states, notably Texas, have a fire at will clause that allows abusive leeway to the owners which is close to that allowed to the owners of serfs. As Engels notes about the lives of the working class – “these laborers are condemned, from their ninth year until their death, to live under the mental and corporal rod, they are more utterly slaves than Blacks in America, because they are more closely supervised – and then it is demanded, that they live like human beings, think like human beings, and feel like human beings!” 

I am fascinated, myself, by the prohibition on singing – which I want to get back to, as I am interested in tracing a history of alienation in the evanescent fabric of song culture. One should point out that the Manchester factories represented, at the time, a classical liberal ideal – elsewhere, for instance in the U.S., custom weighed on the extent to which you could limit freedom on the laborer’s side by contract. Jack Beatty’s excellent but, for some reason, little noticed book on the Gilded Age last year, Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900, is all about the triumph of the libertarian freedom of the owner, at the expense of the worker. 

Beatty’s chapter of the Homestead strike is well worth reading for those who want to understand how slowly the attitude took hold that one’s place of work was not at all one’s own – that ownership was strictly limited by the contract one freely signed, thus conveniently carving out a domain of serfdom in the free society. This serfdom has now, of course, been so assimilated that we naturally segregate our work space from other spaces, and in fact obey the rules that now organize any public space – so much for the existential dimension of freedom. The contract still has this marvelous, magical property, operating to emancipate the contractor and enslave the contractee. There’s an interview with Beatty at the Atlantic site about the book. Beatty points to a turning point after the Civil War in which the Republican party converged with the business elite and turned its back on the ideal of ‘free labor’, in essence betraying its very reason for being:

“Even when Lincoln was advocating free labor, it was a nostalgic idea. As early as 1866, 60 percent of people worked for other people. Now, it’s 90-something percent. Then, of course, they worked in small units; it wasn’t the full-blown factory. But sure, Lincoln’s vision was at variance with the imperatives of the economy and with the necessities of the industrializing elites who came to power after the war. And then there was the railroad—and that changed everything….

Still, the free-labor ideal survives in farming as propaganda. Preserving the tiny number of "family farms" is a justification put forward by the farm lobby. The Homestead Act was put forth by the Republicans as a supposed cure for the class structure congealed by industrialism. The idea was that the eastern factory laborer would leave the factory behind for free land in the west. But that’s not the way it worked out. Why? Because the land was not free—$1,500 was the minimum needed to set up a farm as early as the 1840s. And that was three years pay for the skilled factory worker of 1900! Small farms weren't economically viable. So it wasn’t the factory laborer who went to the farm, but the factory itself. Women’s labor, child labor, seasonal labor—all the aspects of wage labor that the farm was supposed to cure became a part of farm life. That was a bitter social turn. There was no escape from industrial capitalism.”


Legends have grown up around the Homestead strike. John Commons, in 1918, wrote: 

“In the Homestead strike, the labor movement faced for the first time a really modern manufacturing corporation with its practically boundless resources of war. The Amalgamated Association of Iran and Steel Workers in 1891 … was the strongest trade union in the entire history of the American labour movement.”

In 1892, the Carnegie Corporation, under the management of a well known opponent of Unions, H.C. Frick, decided to take on the Amalgamated Association by proposing a lowering of the wage for skilled labor in the steel mills and a new date for renewing contracts, January 1. The latter would make any future refusal of contract fall in the winter, when it would be harder to strike. The Union refused the terms – Frick sent a contingent of 300 Pinkerton men guarding a number of strikebreakers on barges down the Monongahela River. In response, the union barricaded the factory. Somebody fired a shot. A pitched battled ensued, in which the Pinkertons raked the crowd with rifle fire. Seven men died, but then the crowd returned fire until the Pinkertons had to go below deck. Certain of the guards lost heart, and the Pinkertons finally surrendered and were marched through a crowd that mauled them, and then sent back to Pittsburgh. Using the violence as an excuse and, of course, recognizing unlimited freedom of property only on the side of Carnegie, the state government sent in the militia, and to the Carnegie company sent in more Pinkertons. The strikebreakers gained access to the mills, and though the strike lasted until October, the power of the Union was broken. 

This is what Carnegie’s latest biographer, David Nasaw, said, in 2006, in an interview with a Pittsburgh paper:


Q: Now that the mills are gone, do you think Carnegie has a lasting local influence other than the libraries and museums?

A: I did not get into a cab or have a conversation at a hotel when I didn't get a response -- a lively response -- after telling people why I was in town. Everybody had a story about Carnegie, and very few stories put him in a good light. He moved to New York in the 1870s and died in 1919. But his presence still seems to haunt the city.
Is that because of the famous 1892 Homestead Strike? Carnegie blamed that on his business partner, H.C. Frick.

Well, reading the local papers on microfilm, I discovered that while the rest of the world might have been surprised by Homestead, Pittsburghers weren't. This wasn't the first time he'd brought in the Pinkertons -- he'd done the same damn thing at [Braddock's] Edgar Thomson works. Homestead followed a script he'd already written.
Still, Carnegie had written articles about respecting the working man. And previously, he'd been way out in front negotiating with unions. So workers weren't just angry when he brought in the Pinkertons: They felt betrayed.”


Beatty’s account of the strike draws upon the sociological study of the Pittsburgh area financed by the Russell Sage foundation in 1912. One of the sociologists, Margaret Frances Byington (about whom there is an astonishing paucity of information) wrote the book about Homestead. I’m going to quote from her in the next post.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

That paper based ideology. On the thesis: Songs aren't poems or music.

It is interesting to me that so many writers who hate Dylan winning are talking about paper. The whole dispute about songs and poetry comes down, really, to the material substrate. But the idea that a song lyric written down doesn't work as poetry surely works two ways. I've heard a fair number of writers read their works, and rarely - in my experience, never - do the words work coming out of their mouths. Joyce who wanted in some ways to be a singer is great partly because the words work outside the paper. A song isn't a poem. The difference of the substrate is a real difference. You can sing certain poems, but in the singing, they become songs. That is only confusing if you ... well, if you have never read Grammatology, I'm tempted to say. Or if you have an idea that literature is defined by its material substrate. Now of course those writers who are so ardent about the paper test will protest that no, reading is somehow deeper, by which is meant that the paper substrate interfaces with the non-material mind substrate. Humanism is, when all is said and done, white magic. Myself, I think that this is bad metaphysics and a misunderstanding of the possibilities of literature. The art song has been around a long time: Brecht learned if from Karl Valentin in Munich cabarets. In France, it was Berenger under Louis Philippe - who Baudelaire hated - who mixed politics and song. Baudelaire, incidentally, is a key figure here, both pro and contra the fetish of paper.

 I sorta like the way Dylan's voice paved the way for the do it yourself era of voice. Again, though, this is nothing new - the popular song in 1830s France, or the voices in the Threepenny opera, were that same kinda raucous. Ca ira I guess is the mother of the raw song. I think that the distinction of song as a type of thing that is not poetry and not music is probably rooted in the raw voiced song. I wonder what Robert Burns sounded like? He was a great supporter of chopping the heads off kings. Was there a connection between the Jacobin sympathies (that his victorian fans bowdlerized) and the rawness of the sound he must have heard - since French revolutionary songs definitely penetrated the British isles? This interests me professionally, as a writer. I read the chapters of my novel to Antonia, or she reads them to me, because I am really interested in the sound, the sounds. I'm after sounds that I have heard in the street, in bars and restaurants and offices. Many of them I can write down, but I can't do myself. They won't come out of my mouth. This is the undervalued part of writing prose. The idea that you can simply read your stuff seems to point to this neglect rather than otherwise. Really you would have to bring a troupe with you.