“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, January 23, 2016

the Randian tone of Donald Trump

The National review takedown of trump laid an egg, and reminds us that nowadays, Glenn Beck counts as a rightwing intellectual. In the old days, National Review actually did have some intellectual heft. For instance, it poured scorn on Ayn Rand. Here's Whttacker Chambers review of Atlas Shrugged. Here's the second graf: The news about this book seems to me to be that any ordinarily sensible head could not possibly take it seriously, and that, apparently, a good many do. Somebody has called it: “Excruciatingly awful.” I find it a remarkably silly book. It is certainly a bumptious one. Its story is preposterous. It reports the final stages of a final conflict (locale: chiefly the United States, some indefinite years hence) between the harried ranks of free enterprise and the “looters.” These are proponents of proscriptive taxes, government ownership, labor, etc., etc. The mischief here is that the author, dodging into fiction, nevertheless counts on your reading it as political reality. This,” she is saying in effect, “is how things really are. These are the real issues, the real sides. Only your blindness keeps you from seeing it, which, happily, I have come to rescue you from.”
I can't imagine such a graf appearing in today's ever pandering NRO. More's the pity.
 In fact, if the NRO contained any moderately intelligent writers in its stable, they would have gone back to Rand to trace the real geneology of Trumpism. Chambers description of Rand's tone hits, presciently, on Donald Trump's genre of bluster: Something of this implication is fixed in the book’s dictatorial tone, which is much its most striking feature. Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber–go!” The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too (in the total absence of any saving humor), in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture-that Dollar Sign, for example. At first, we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive. Soon we suspect something worse. We suspect that this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house. A tornado might feel this way, or Carrie Nation.

Friday, January 22, 2016

for the draft

For the draft
One of the great victories of the antiwar movement in the Vietnam era was the abolition of selective service.
In retrospect, this was a victory for the right. For the left, and for the American people, it was a disaster.
The draft, it turns out, is a dialectical instrument – one in which the affordances impinge on each other. As a political tool, it both mobilized the population to do the bidding of the political establishment and spread mass anxiety that the political establishment had to respond to.  Its abolition has contributed to two trends.
One is the trend to executive office wars. These started out small in the Reagan years, became much bigger under Bush 1, and exploded under Bush 2 and Obama.
The second is the drifting apart of the general population and the guarantor state. That state, built to support the working class, now routinely supports capital against the working class. And it supports war.
If the draft had not been abolished in the seventies, millions of men and women in the fourty years between its abolition and now would have been drafted. They would have been eligible for health benefits across their lifetime. They would have had educational benefits that would have significantly reduced the burden of student debt, perhaps most of it. If the draft had continued, African American men and women, in particular, would have seen their upward social mobility accelerate instead of stagnate and decline. The revenge of Jim Crow, the jailing of the young African American population that is one of the most shameful and horrible things that has happened in my lifetime in this country, would have been halted.
Looking back at the upward social mobility that characterized the post World War two era, it is surprising how much of it was connected to the draft – to the war machine. Millions of Gis received education benefits that landed them in college, the first in their families to ever have that chance. Millions were able to afford housing. Millions, today, rely on medical insurance from the VA.
If you go through the biographies of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, until recently the outstanding data point was how many came from working class families and went through the army or navy or air force, which led them into the path they took upwards.
It was an excellent tactic, in the sixties, to resist the draft. When I call it a dialectical instrument, this is what I mean. The draft personalizes foreign policy. During the sixties, a demonstration had much more symbolic and political power because those demonstrating were potentially draftees – people who had had to deal with the system. Thus, they spread discontent throughout the system.
The demonstration has become a relic precisely to the extent that the establishment no longer needs the population. The million people who came out against the Iraq war weren’t the comrades, or even very connected to, the people who were going to fight it – the mercenaries and volunteers.
As well, the sense of solidarity – the sense that the government is yours, because you have served it – was also a victim of the end of the draft. There is little sense, now, that the taxes taken by the government are more an investment for the vast majority of people. They are, instead, a suck on their marginal existences.
In a stroke, bringing back the draft will make it impossible for the establishment to engage in such things as our endless war in Afghanistan, a sixteen year, trillion and a half dollar enterprise that is being fought to save the establishment’s face. Think, we have spent that money and blood and now Afghanistan is free! Save for the women, the half of the country infested with war lords or the Taliban, and most of the impoverished population.
Don’t you feel the rush?
The draft will also brighten the chances for a less endebted future, and perhaps even a wealthier one, for a whole generation of Americans.  We will once again start asking the question Kennedy got wrong: ask not what you can do for the government, ask what the government can do for you.
Otherwise, you are fucked.


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

what do you mean we, kemo sabe: the new yorker we



The New Yorker "we"
Renata Adler, in her intemperate book against the new New Yorker of the 90s, Gone, took particular offense at the very person of Adam Gopnik. "I had learned over the course of conversations with Mr. Gopnik that his questions were not questions, or even quite soundings. Their purpose was to maneuver you into advising him to do what he would, in any case, walk over corpses to do." James Wolcott is also a non-fan: “He is avidly talented and spongily absorbent, an earnest little eager beaver whose twitchy aura of neediness makes him hard to dislike until the preciosity simply becomes too much.”
Myself, I have never met the man, and I liked the winsome Paris to the Moon, which was in the fine New Yorker tradition of accounts of an exotic Paris that was at once more civilized and more backwards than the good old USA. I accept the limitations of that vein, and then read Thurber or Flanner or Gopnik (less Flanner, actually – the best Paris correspondent ever) for the humor.
But if the early career of Gopnik seems, at least in the eyes of his colleagues, to have been Gollum-like (I wants the ring, precccioouss!), it is his incarnation as a New Yorker mandarin that bugs me. The pixie dust of the Paris book has fallen away, and the man so revealed does, as Wolcott put it, seem born to annoy me.
Which brings me to his essay about Henry James in the latest New Yorker.
For Gopnik, a book review or essay is not complete if it isn’t also an intellectual fashion report. If it isn’t, that is, aimed at the hip “we” which finds a tight little place in his paragraphs. Thus, the status report on James begins with an implicit we – the we of contemporary readers, a category that Gopnik never quantifies in some dirty way by looking at, say, sales figures or essays in magazines or things like that. Gopnik is his own authority on the contemporary reader, and that reader better be damn proud of it.
“For freshness of voice, firmness of purpose (if a firmness always subject to scruples and second thoughts), and general delight on the page, the memoirs are fully alive to the contemporary reader in a way that James’s late novels may no longer be. Although the sentences are always labyrinthine and sometimes exhausting, the feeling at the end of each chapter is one of clarity rather than of murk: a little piece of memory has been polished bright.”
A little piece of memory? Out of some great gurgling whole of memory? I suppose just saying a memory has been polished bright would expose the dubious, hallmark card proposition in the sentence.
But why have James’s late novels failed our sophisticated contemporary readers? And isn’t there evidence against this? Of the three late masterpieces (Wings of the Dovc, the Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl), the last – GB – was filmed in 2000, and Wings of the Dove in 1995 according to IMBD.. Now, perhaps Gopnik is talking about contemporary readers born in 1995, but I think probably not. Given the regularity with which James is dramatized in tv series and movies, I’m guessing the late novels (besides The Ambassadors, which would be extremely hard to film) will sooner or later be recycled on the wheel, at which point the New Yorker will have some writer on hand to tell us why the late novels are so relevant to the now.
The IMBD list does chart a growth in the industry of bringing James to film, which, I suppose, could probably be used to chart spurts in the buying and reading of his books. Gopnik employs an entirely different method to tell us about James’s relevance – which depends entirely on the New Yorker “we”:
“Certainly, the great cult of the later James, which arose in the propaganda-fearing nineteen-forties and fifties, when he and T. S. Eliot stood above all other writers for sighs and scruples, could use a new infusion of objects. James remains a classic, of course, but a classic is not necessarily a presence. David Foster Wallace, the saint of under-thirty readers, mentions James not at all in his critical writings, and though one might take his qualifications and circlings back as Jamesian, they are employed to discriminate not more finely but to discriminate not at all—to get it in, rather than to pare it down. In a time of linguistic overkill, like the nineteen-forties, we look to literature for a language of emotional caution; in an age of irony, we look for emotional authenticity. Feeling ourselves in a desert of true feeling, we look for a feeling of truth.”
Who, exactly, feels in a desert of true feeling? And, by the way, when did David Foster Wallace become the saint of under-thirty readers? And, third question, how can we expect a new infusion of objects from a dead writer? We might live in the age of raising the level of exploitation, but even capitalism has not yet figured out how to raise the dead. Surely that should be 30-40 year old readers. I am unsure who is the patron saint of under thirty readers, or if they have one, but I do know that the New Yorker we, peering dimly out there towards Dubuque or Brooklyn, probably has decided that it must be DFW, just as they probably decided, in 1978, that all the kids were listening to Bob Dylan. As fashion reports go, the New Yorker is in a position, almost by definition, of being behind the fashions.
Once Gopnik drops his idea that he, we, and the contemporary reader are one and the same, he does same some interesting things about James’s autobiographies. As Wolcott wrote, long ago, Gopnik is decidedly smart – that is, he is smart when he decides to be. I simply wish he would decide to not issue memoranda on what we are reading or thinking or feeling today. The we reminds me of an old children's joke, the one where the lone ranger, holed up in a hut with bad guys outside, tells Tonto that we are in a bad spot, and Tonto says, what do you mean  we, Kemo sabe?