“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

Friday, November 17, 2017

On pluck: translating the Brecht essay on Five Difficulties in writing the truth

Berthold Brecht wrote a small essay, meant for covert distribution in Nazi Germany, entitled Five Difficulties with writing the truth.
Thank God that we don’t live in Nazi Germany. Thank God that we don’t live in present day Yemen, which is being systematically starved to death by our ally, Saudi Arabia, using weapons sold to it by the U.S., France, the U.K., etc.
Our bad time is different.
Anyway, though this essay has been translated, I thought I’d try doing the intro paragraph and the section on “Mut” – having the spirit for something, the quality of being spunky. When we hear about the bravery of women who are accusing powerful sex abusers of their crimes and violence, we are in the realm of Mut. I’ll call it pluck. Pluck, according to the OED, went through an interesting etymological journey to arrive at the colloquial term, as they call it, for having boldness or courage. The word pluck comes from a mass of Germanic and Latin words implying untangling, peeling, unfeathering, etc. From this, the word worked itself in deeper, to connote the guts – what is plucked out of, say, a chicken. And from the guts it worked itself toward the temperament corresponding to the heart: pluck. I rather like this origin, which is less military than courage or bravery, more about the ordinary tasks characteristically allotted to women in peasant societies.
“Today, whoever wants to fight lies and ignorance and wants to write the truth has to surmount at least five difficulties. He must have the pluck to write the truth when it is being suppressed on all side; the cleverness to recognize it, although it is being hidden on all sides; the art to make it handy as a weapon; the judgement, to select those into whose hands one entrusts it; and the cunning, to distribute it to the latter.These difficulties are enormous for those who write under fascism, but they still insist themselves even in the case of those who have been hunted out of fascist countries, and even for those who write in the lands of bourgeois freedom.

1. The pluck, to write the truth. It seems self-evident, that the writer should write the truth in the sense, that he doesn’t suppress it or fall silent about it, and that he shouldn’t write the untruth. He should not bow to the might, he should not betray the weak. Naturally it is very hard not to bow to the mighty, and very advantageous, to betray the weak. To get on the bad side of the possessing class means renouncing possession oneself. To renounce payment for work performed means under certain circumstances to renounce work at all, and to waive fame among the mighty often means simply to wave fame. For this, one must be plucky. Times of the worst oppression are marked by the fact that all the speeches are about great and high things. It takes pluck in such times to speak of low and small things, like eating and the living spaces of the workers, in the midst of the violent cries that the spirit of sacrifice is the main thing necessary.  When the farmers are being showered with praises, it takes pluck to speak of machines and cheap feed, which will lighten their loads. When it is hollered on the radio waves that the man with no knowledge and education is better than the man with knowledge and education, than it is plucky to ask: for whom is he better?   When speeches are made of formed and halfformed races, it is plucky to ask if perhaps hunger and ignorance and war are not bringing forth our misbirths. Just as it requires pluck to talk the truth about oneself, over the defeated. Many, who are persecuted, lose the ability to recognize their mistakes.Persecution seems to them to be the greatest injustice. The persecutors, since they persecute, are evil, while they, the persecuted, are being persecuted because of their goodness. But this goodness has been struck down, defeated and impeded, and was thus a weak goodness, a bad, unstable, unreliable goodness; because it doesn’t do to say that the weak are good the way that rain is wet. To say that the good have not been defeated, because they were good, but because they were weak, requires pluck.”
I’ve been pretty free with my translation of the difficult last two sentences. It pretty much sums up, though, the difference between the victim, on the one hand, and the justice of a cause, on the other. Victimization does not make the victim good, even if it makes the victimizer bad.  

Thursday, November 16, 2017

my inexhaustible thirst for blowing up statues

The panic on the right about the taking down of the Confederate statues derives from a sense of time that is shared by the left: this is the time that Deleuze, in Logic of Sense, refers to as aion. Aion, for Deleuze (following the stoics) sees the present as a fiction, dividing infinitely between the past and the future. Chronos, the rival temporal schema, sees the present as the only time. The past is composed of presents that have been superceded by other presents and the future will be composed of presents in the same way. Chronos is imminently the time frame of liberalism. We can manage the past, as an obsolete present, and see how it leads to the now. The now is neither haunted nor iffy.

However: against the liberal interpretation, the left sees the razing of the Confederate statues as opening up the past that exists in the Now, in connection with other pasts. For instance, the past of sexual harassment, which of course also has its statues.

In the Democratic party, the statue from the past that is being gingerly tapped is that of Bill Clinton. This article from, of all places, Vox, is a definite sign. What we know about Bill Clinton and the various women that have accused him of sexual harassment and even rape – in the case of Juanita Broaddrick – is something that we keep trying to put out of sight. We wrapped it all tightly in the word consensual. But given the accusations against Trump, and given the pattern we see again and again with people like Harvey Weinstein, the consensual dodge is wearing thin.

Personally, I think that Clinton has escaped even in the post-Presidential years reckoning with his relation to women. The right hammers about his relationship to Jeffrey Epstein – and they are right to do so. The right is deathly silent about Trump’s relationship to Jeffrey Epstein. And meanwhile, the scandal of what a billionaire can get away with who is raping underaged girls and pimping them out continues to show what a joke the American judicial system has become.

I find it interesting how the powerful sexual harassers group together. Certainly Bill Clinton, Trump and Epstein seemed to group together. Like, well, like a cluster of confederate monuments.
What Faulkner said about the South really applies to the whole U.S. since the civil rights era: The past is not dead. It’s not even past.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A rhetorical question

Who among us has not felt intimations of a certain permanent nausea, a nausea of the brain cells, during this ice age of reaction in which we live, cocooned in the ephemerally invulnerable systems erected since the beginning of the Cold War, feeding our intellects on our irritation and imaginary apocalypses? Imaginary, I say, for us – not for, say, your average Yemeni.  And of course, for those who have eyes to see, the minor apocalypse – to give it its true historical scale – of an American middle class that has been persuaded, in the age of Reagan, to cut its throat and think, while it is lapping up its own blood, that it is enjoying the very champagne of capitalism. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

biography and formalism - first round

 The obvious objection to the pure formalist’s notion that biography has nothing to do with the artist’s work is that, indeed, biography provides the unifying link that gives you one distinct level of your units of analysis. We don’t jumble together War and Peace and Sense and Sensibility, on this level, but put Sense and Sensibility in that unit called “Jane Austin’s work” and “War and Peace” in what we call Tolstoy’s work,  and so on. To compare “Jane Austin” to “Leo Tolstoy” is to reference these unities.
When we don’t have those unities, in fact, we get worried. We want all of Plato’s works to be by Plato, and Shakespeare’s to be by Shakespeare, and since the mechanism of publication in Plato’s and Shakespeare’s epochs did not color within the lines and give us straightforward attributions, we have scholars mightily working on the sidelines to either purge the units comprising their works or add others to them. Not surprisingly, these scholars refer to … the agreed corpus of Shakespeare’s and Plato’s works to make their arguments.
But what the biography means after we have all agreed that these are the terms of the game is another matter. Some would say that the unity of an artist’s work is different from that of a philosopher or scientist. The unity of Einstein’s work, for instance, is secondary to the universe that it tries to account for. Shakespeare cannot be overthrown by the behavior of real Princes who happen to be in Hamlet’s position, but Einstein can be overthrown if we find evidence that the speed of light is not the fastest thing in the universe. If Einstein actually stole the proof from his wife, it would lower our opinion of Einstein (the stealer!) but not of the theory of general relativity.
Of course, we “find” our proves for science through science. We don’t have any direct oracle from nature. Unless, like Newton, we think that science makes no hypotheses, and the math is just that direct oracle from nature, more direct than any hearing or echolocation. In which case, there is a sense in which there are no authors in science, there are just figures.
But in the social sciences and in philosophy, we don’t have science in that sense. We have Marx, we have Keynes, we have Wittgenstein, we have Heidegger – we have a set of figures who seem, like Tolstoy or Austin, to have an authorial relation to their texts.
The next defense of the formalist is that at least here, we can forget the vices and virtues of the figures and speak of their arguments in the same way that we can speak of the formal characteristics and values that go into building a poem, play, or novel.
This, at least, is one way of building the argument.
The deconstructive intervention strikes, in a sense, here. Or let us say, the deconstructionist reshuffles the cards.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

the geography of subjective experience

There's the geography of maps, where the objects are a town, a river, a mountain, and then there is the subjective map, where the objects are all object-events: getting lost, coming home, being-in-a-strange-apartment. The subjective map has a very different scale - it measures not inches, miles, or kilometers, but uniqueness and repetitions. For instance, the geography of getting lost depends upon its position in the scale of encounters with a place - getting lost in the same place the second time is a harder thing to do, and eventually, if you keep coming back, you aren't lost at all and the lostness that you once experienced seems like a dream. 

Thursday, November 09, 2017

the battle between the list and the dialogue

There are two stories about Protagoras. In the hostile account of his life written by Diogenes Laertius, it is said that he was a porter, a relatively humble position, and that he invented a porter’s pad for carrying things. But in Philostratas’s Lives of the Sophists he is given a much grander birth, being the son of a wealthy citizen of Abdera who “amassed wealth beyond most men in Thrace”, and who entertained King Xerxes in his house. Philostratus claims that this Persian connection effected Protagoras’s thinking, since he became versed, to an extent, in the doctrines of the Persian magi. Whereas Diogenes Laertius (writing with all the snobbery of the ancient world at his back) attributes Protagorus’s education to Democritus, who was impressed by Protagoras’s invention of the porter’s pad. Somehow, this story rings with the implication of slander – it gives Protagoras’s cunning all too menial a cast. And yet Diogenes also casually attributes the invention of philosophy by dialogue, or the Socratic method, to Protagoras – a rather big invention, the invention of a form, which Diogenes, in his usual way, mentions and goes on. The  biographies of the Philosophers tumble and jumble off the page like some inventory landslide, leaving us frustrated, howling outside of the sacked walls for more.  
One thing that is agreed between Philostratus and Diogenes is that Protagorus, like Socrates, was accused in Athens of disbelief in the Gods. In Philostratus, his person was condemned, and he fled from place to place like a philosophical Flying Dutchman, seeking refuge, until he drowned in a shipwreck. Diogenes L, however, maintains merely that his book, On the Gods, was burned in Athens. He read this book, supposedly, at Euripides house. The scandalous import of the book comes out in Diogenes quotation: “As to the Gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life.”
This quotation, of course, doesn’t tell us much about the argument that Protagoras develops about the gods; for after all, the argument might show that most probably, they exist, and that their existence is bound up in our not knowing. Or otherwise. Protagoras’s life – which is a bit undecidable itself – might have provided a good context in which to ponder undecidablity and the shortness of human life. Surely some echo of Protagoras’s phrase is contained in the story, in Acts, that Paul discovered an altar in Athens inscribed, to the unknown God.
I have always found Protagoras a sympathetic figure, whether or not he came from the working class. He has been demonized for millenia as the “founder” of relativism. One of Protagoras’s book, lost like all of them, has the nice, Nietzschian title of “Truth, or The Overthrower” - (Kataballontes Logoi). What we have from Protagoras (as though proving the shortness of man’s life has an imminent effect on what he can know) is fragments, the most famous of which, pondered wonderfully in the Theaetetus, is: ‘Of all things, the measure is man, of things which are, that they are, of things which are not, that they are not.’ What this means is elusive, of course. It is not that man is the inventor of all things – nor does it say that things do not exist outside of man. These are, of course, possible interpretations. But it puts man in the position of “measurer”, and in one sense that goes well with the Pythagorian viewpoint according to which number is at the ontological base of things. Yet in another sense, it displaces number with the measurer – begging the question of whether measure itself “depends” on man.
Myself, I think the measure fragment links up to what DL claims about Protagoras’s invention of the socratic dialogue for doing philosophy. DL writes that Protagoras was the first to say “that on everything (pragmatos) there are two accounts (logous) opposed each other.” This would seem to make  “man”  the measurer a more suspect unity; for if pragmatos is the kind of thing that is subject to exponential account making, it might be more reasonably said that of all things, the measureless is man. Plato of course saw this, but he nevertheless decided that “man” meant an aggregate of individuals, each person, instead of something like Dasein, or the collectivity of the human, divided within itself. If we are seeking the geneology of what Bakhtin calls “broadness” – the way many views, acts, desires and beliefs can be attributed to persons, without there being a core coherence – then we would have to start, I think, with Protagoras.
There is a story about Protagoras that is recounted in Plutarch’s life of Pericles that exemplifies this theme. Pericles bratty son published a “Daddy Dearest” book trying to mock Pericles for, among other things, hanging with the sophists. “For instance, a certain athlete had hit Epitimus the Pharsalian with a javelin, accidentally, and killed him, and Pericles, Xanthippus said, squandered an entire day discussing with Protagoras whether it was the javelin, or rather the one who hurled it, or the judges of the contests, that "in the strictest sense" ought to be held responsible for the disaster.” This was an entire waste of time for the son, Xanthippus; but it is a moment of radical recognition that stands out in legal history, with the sense that liability can be mediate as well as immediate. But what we see, in this discussion with Pericles, is an effect of there being two sides to each question, and two sides after that – two sides, indeed, to whether the right question is being asked.
The interesting question to ask of those who oppose relativism relates to this issue of measure and measurelessness, and it is the question of the disposability of form, whether it can be discarded once we get to substance, or whether it is, indeed, so tied to substance that our abstraction of one from the other is a distortion. To put it another way, by rejecting Protagoras, which happens in the Theaetetus, is Plato actually rejecting the socratic method? Is he rejecting Socrates? For if Socrates is taking up Protagoras’s technique, it would seem, from Plato’s non-relativist view, that Socrates made a mistake, gave too much to the enemy. For Protagoras’s invention would seem designed never to get us closer to what we want - the list of imperatives in the realms of knowledge, ontology, ethics and aesthetics that can tell us what is true and what is false, what is knowledge and what isn’t, what exists and what doesn’t, what is right and what isn’t, what is beautiful and what isn’t.
With Protagoras, don’t we begin, in earnest, the battle between the dialogue and the list?

Sunday, November 05, 2017

shower tourism

Who among us is not aware of shower tourism? By this, I do not simply mean the always tentative exploration of hotel bathrooms, with their varying accommodation for the traveler, their little tubes of cheap shampoo and body gel, which one nevertheless pockets, their towels of varying thicknesses, and their surprisingly common problem with retaining water in the shower or shower/tub area – the latter being home to a curious penchant among hoteliers for what is called, in the industry, the “flexible curtain track”, which allows ample space to pull the curtain shut – but which always produces a sizeable puddle at the end of the lustration process. That puddle into which the showerer plunges his feet, with a light grimace, when removing himself from the shower – how well we know it. Unlike our bathroom, however, the puddle is a matter for someone else to clean up. Yes, the hotel bathroom deserves a whole chapter to itself, but at the moment, I am talking of another facet of this micro-world, which consists of using the showers of others – of friends or family with whom one is staying, or who are staying with one. Both aspects are noteworthy – tourism is, in this sense, a transitive property, since if you have guests staying with you, your quarters are, for the length of the stay, going to be somewhat alien to you. In other words, the tourist is a catalytic creature at whose touch the familiar becomes a tourist site. It is this logico-magical property that makes for the tragedy of tourism, as the tourist searches for an authenticity which his very presence destroys.
Myself, I have stayed with many a host. I have entered naked into many a tiled domain in apartment and house,  and, testing the water from the shower head or wand, surveyed the various unguents stored there. Sometimes, of course, I have entered carrying my own; sometimes, I confess, I have “borrowed” alien creams, soaps, shampoos and the like. This, you will say, is pretty un-guestly. It is a sort of vice. But it is also part of our everyday novel-writing – since we all engage in living through, or parasiting, other characters now and then. The grocery clerk surveys the line and sees Mrs. X and Mr. Y and that girl who always comes in and buys one item and the old woman who makes you go through endless rolls of curly edged coupons, the auto saleman guesses at the libido of the 20 year old guy, etc., etc. The self comes and goes, it doesn’t preceed self-interest so much as it follows it, becoming at worst a ghostly selfishness, and at best a moral worry.
So it is with conditioners. As we know from Kracauer and Benjamin, the houses and apartments we live in are potentially only repositories of clues for the classic detective. The doilies in the living room may be bought for decorative reasons, but ultimately they serve to soak up the blood from the murder victim,  along with the velvety pillow. The shower contains – like the computer and its files – a veritable history of the owner of the shower for those with the eyes to see. Are the hair products bought from the low end? Are they cheap and general? Or are they bought from the high end, and are they expensive and specialized? Is the language on them, by any chance, French? Or English? Do the shower gels refer to milk? To almonds? To glowing skin?

The shower process itself nourishes speculation. We stand under the fierce beating down of warm drops and we think. We ponder the day, the tasks. We make up verses. We make up grocery lists. There are, of course, people who simply shower to get clean. But as every tv ad for shampoo or soap makes clear, cleaning is secondary to the ecstasy of soaping and rinsing, to swinging, fresh hair, to sparkling eyes, to the smell that film is just on the edge of throwing at you if it could – the whole transcends its tawdry utilitarian purpose as much as advertisement’s speedy expensive car transcends that mere metal carapace stuck in traffic jams and hustled into parking lots. Advertisement has a way of changing the purposes of the acts of everyday life. In the case of the shower, it has cinematized our experience.
There is a reason that some sing in the shower.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

a magisterial sigh

Ah, the great magisterial sighs of the 19th century bigwigs! One way to explain the cultural critique in Nietzsche is his exasperation with the high culture of mandarin resignation. It is the side of Nietzsche that can be summed up by the theory of the eternal return (a theory that leads inevitably to parody, or even to parody as the very principle of worldmaking) or by a phrase that never occurs in the papers of that son of a Lutheran pastor: fuck you!
Jules Renan was a great magisterial sigher. He had the highest reputation in the 19th century. Reviewing his “Reminiscences of Childhood and Youth”, Henry James wrote, Jamesianly: “It is not enough to say of him that he has the courage of his opinions: for that, after all, is a comparatively frequent virtue. He has the resignation; he has the indifference; he has, above all, the good humor.“
There is something to this. To be indifferent to your opinions is as comparatively rare as it is frequent to have the courage of them. One could even ask why one should form opinions at all if we are going to be indifferent to them.  Renan, being a classicist, might reply to that question by pointing to Parmenides poem about Being, a poem in which the great struggle between Night and Light is, as well, a non-struggle, in as much as they cannot mix at all, but only separate. This is not only the struggle between becoming and being, but the struggle between believing and knowing. The latter is a utopia, an aporia, given that the forms or ideas can never mix with that of which they are forms. Knowledge, then, requires a certain exhaustion. We are finally brought to the variable, which no content can fix. This can be viewed as an epistemological tragedy, or… a historical farce.
The back and forth of farce is what Renan opts for. Hence in the introduction to his Reminiscences, he basically signs the death warrant for the world as he has known it:

“The world is marching towards a kind of Americanism, which would all our refined ideas, but which, once the present crisis is over, could well be no worse than the old order for the only thing that counts, which is to say, the franchisement and progress of the human spirit. A society where personal distinction has little price, where talent and intelligence have no official recognition, where high function does not ennoble, where politics becomes the job of classless men and persons of the lowest order, where the rewards of life go, by preference, to the intrigue, vulgarity and charlatanism that cultivates the art of the advertisement, to the rascality of those who find ways to squeeze the Penal Code; such a society, I say, does not please us.”

But then, of course, comes the other hand, that hand that, as though driven by some neurological defect, comes up and slaps its owner’s face. For Renan reviews all the “old orders” he or his parents have lived in, and found them all to come up short, to be full of scurrility, vulgar powerbrokers, and heartbreaking obstacles to the enfranchised imagination. So don’t worry, old man. The worst is yet to come – but it is always yet to come. The worst is behind us – but it is also ahead of us. This is positivism inverted, and it has a certain odd comfort to it. But it is a high price to pay for indifference to one’s opinions.

James notices this too, and makes a reply to Renan that also has its place in some impossible dialogue between Parmenides and Protagoras (who, not by coincidence, name two of Plato’s dialogues): “He [Renan] makes the remark that in his opinion less importance will be attached to talent as the world goes on; what we shall care for will be simply truth. This declaration is singular in many ways, among others in this: that it appears to overlook the fact that one of the great uses of talent will aways be to discover truth and present it; and that, being an eminently personal thing, and therefore susceptible of great variety, it can hardly fail to be included in the estimate that the world will continue to make of persons.”


Monday, October 30, 2017

non-disclosure agreements: the trick the mafia missed

In Leopoldo Sciascia’s crime novels, there are always two solutions. One is the true solution, patiently assembled by the inspector or researcher (who either has too much integrity to be allowed to function after a certain point, or has too much naivete to realize that he is putting himself in mortal danger), and the other is the solution most convenient to the representatives of the State – the same State whose laws define the crime that is supposedly being punished.

Such was and is Italy, from the 60s to the 90s. The genius of American corruption is elsewhere. America is a country of laws, so corruption first operates by unmaking the law to suit the perpetrators. It allows such things as non-disclosure agreements, for instance. For a certain sum of money, the perpetrators can either not be tried at all or their trials can’t be accessed.
It would seem, at first glance, that such things are counter to any principle of the legal order. To allow a crime to be hidden by a non-disclosure agreement is logically equivalent to allowing a crime to be perpetrated outside of the law. If we protect a rapist from the disclosure of the rape, or we protect a pharmaceutical company from the consequences of malpractice so severe that thousands die of it every year and hundreds of thousands are addicted, we are doing nothing different from allowing people to be lynched for crimes they are merely accused of.  Interestingly, what ties the Weinstein accusations to the Sackler family exposes recently paraded in two magazines is that in both cases, the outlines of what happened are obscured by court order. The law itself is intent, here, on hiding the possibility of crime.
It is worth asking how a non-disclosure agreement, which might have a use in protecting Intellectual Property, became the go-to instrument for lawyers protecting monied criminals. That history leads us back to the eternal struggle between capital and labor. At the beginning of the twentieth century, progressive legislation made it necessary for employers to disclose to their laborers facts pertinent to the particular dangers to health faced by the laborer from the materials he or she dealt with. However, the courts saved capitalism by making that disclosure an agreement, such that the laborer couldn’t hold the employer liable. From this, it was a hop, skip, and a social cost to the establishment of Workers Insurance schemes mounted by the state (which, in this as through its entire history, was not the enemy but the collaborator of Capital). At the same time, it became apparent that the products of companies could be hazardous – accidentally or for a purpose – and a requirement to disclose those dangers was incorporated in the law as well. Upon this base of law was built – during the brief spring of democratization that swept the U.S. in the sixties and seventies – a whole movement for consumer rights. At that time, many ‘right to know” laws were passed. Where employees were formerly not told that, for instance, the asbestos they are mining will kill them horribly, or even where they were informed tardily, they could be sued. In fact, in any real history of the U.S., the suing of John Mandeville Asbestos should take a larger space than it is given, for that suit shocked the business establishment. The counter-revolution had many sources, but one of them was definitely the nightmarish idea that a company could make a fair profit while killing its employees with chronic diseases and then, then, the fuckers would take that profit back to pay for a lot of slacker hospital time. The very idea made officials in the Reagan whitehouse – and in neo-lib think tanks advising the Dems – feel so bad.
One of the landmarks in the counter-revolution against labor was an obscure court decision, Chrysler Corporation vs. Brown. The court held there that the “Trade Secrets Act” of 1905 trumped the FOIA laws that had been set up in the sixties. That a third party would have any access to government files concerning Chrysler’s discriminatory hiring practices from documents submitted by Chrysler was outrageous. An informed population is a population that is difficult to govern. And imagine the nightmare of everybody knowing Chrysler’s business?
The muffled roar of Chrysler vs. Brown was, of course, heard by those paid to hear such things: corporate lawyers. The charge was on.
How the non-disclosure agreement extended from trade secrets to secrets of life and death, of rape and pillage, is wrapped up with another strand of the story of the cold war. For it was the security state that innovated in using the NDA as a powerful tool to keep things out of court.
In 1984, for instance, the Reagan administration was forced to form a commission to investigate the murder of four nuns in El Salvador. The nuns were lefties, and their murder was planned and executed, it was suspected, by allies, to say the least, of the Americans. The study was completed, and turned into the State department, which promptly branded it top secret.
The families of the nuns protested. This protest was heard. The administration then took a compromise position. The family members could see the report, as long as they signed an NDA that pledged them to never disclose the information in the report under any circumstances as long as they shall live without the permission of the State Department.

Thus, at one neat stroke, a crime could be hidden beneath an agreement.

I say a crime. But what is a crime? The United States is a very nominalist culture. To attack racism, for instance, you attack racist labels. Once the labels are forbidden, voila, racism is solved. Similarly, rape or murder might be a crime. Or it might not! An NDA is a nice way of suspending that label forever. Like Schrodinger’s cat, it is concealed from the observer, and is therefore in a perpetual middle state, the state of Mu, to use the Zen term (no doubt incorrectly).

What the CIA and FBI get away with doing will soon be standard practice for the rich and famous – or simply the rich. Expanding the trade secret sphere was relatively easy in an age in which publicity had seamlessly merged into product production. Hence it becomes common that film companies have all workers sign a NDA to block release of information about, say, the behavior of the actors on the film. Creep creep creep, its mission creep for creeps, time. The NDA becomes an instrument of corruption that is all above board and tucked in. And so we get to our current epoch, where thousands die and the company that sold them their pills continues to not only profit, but ultimately block information about how they did it; where the Sackler name adorns multitudes of buildings, the result of donations that flowed from the money made by Oxycontin; where thousands of women are subject to sexual harassment up to and including rape, and the Weinsteins roam the landscape.
I wonder as I wander how long such things can go on. They have gone on almost my entire life. The man in the iron mask used to be an emblem of unaccountable power. Now, he’s your everyman. Let’s marvel that Rosie McGowan is so bound legally that she can be sued by Harvey Weinstein if she describes in any detail what he did to her in his hotel room in 1997, and the accuser of Bill O’Reilly is bound to anonymity forever as a result of her settlement. Marvel that Purdue Pharmaceuticals is at the moment claiming that the documents it was forced to release to Oregon when the state sued them for abusive oxycontin pill pushing are all a trade secret, and can’t be disclosed to anybody else. Marvel that with the far right justices who rule the court system, probably Purdue will win in the end. Marvel that the Mafia missed a big trick.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

from Koestler to Weinstein: men behaving "badly"

In 1999, David Cesarani wrote a biography of Arthur Koestler. Arthur Koestler is now a writer who dimly rings a bell, but in the Cold War he was quite the righteous mandarin, just after George Orwell himself. That status of a man who told the truth about Stalinism was precious to a group that moved right in the seventies and eighties, and defended themselves by the retrospective moral condemnation of Stalinism (that was never accompanied by a retrospective moral condemnation of slaveholding, genocide, and colonial oppression as accomplished by the US – for to point at the U.S. was to engage in moral equivalency and other sins).
Koestler, according to Cesarini, was not a nice guy. For instance, he was a pouncer – he would paw at women, and some women, including Jill Craigie, said he raped them. Think Bill O’Reilly, except more, what is the word, aggressive.
Well, this was too much for the “liberal” NYRB, who set Julian Barnes to the task of defending Koestler from the lowminded and scurrilous Cesarani. The issue is addressed by Barnes like this:
“At the time of Cesarani’s publication, I was rung up by a French journalist checking that I had been a friend of Koestler’s. Yes, in his very last years, I replied. So what do you think, he asked, of this new book which says he was a rapist? Wondering why I had picked up the phone, I replied, rather grimly, that I thought Koestler’s analysis of Soviet communism was unaffected by the news. Yes, but do you feel differently about him, knowing that he raped someone? Well, he is dead, I replied, aware that I was hedging. Yes, but if he was alive, would you think differently of him? Yes, I probably would, I replied.
It was obvious that the analysis of the Soviet Union, for which he is known, is being downplayed (dubiously, in Barnes opinion) all because he raped some women. The biographer’s job, obviously, is to mention that in a distant footnote. I take up Barnes’ review, old news, because the downplaying of what Koestler is accused of is very characteristic of the downplaying that will inevitably follow the current spate of revelations about shitty men in media. Koestler, in Barnes review, is compared to a rock star, and then is accorded the title of “hedonist” before we come to the knock down and drag em around sex. Just so we are clear that only the close minded would fasten themselves to Koestler’s rapiness, Barnes goes the next step:
“It’s not just the smugness of these judgments; it’s more that, on a level of human understanding, Cesarani so often simply doesn’t get it. It clearly puzzles and disturbs him that despite Koestler’s unconstrained approach to sex, and his bad behavior when drunk, women liked him, enjoyed his company, and remained loyal friends.
Bad behavior when drunk – a multi-generational, multitudinous excuse.
Michael Scammel, Koestler’s official biographer, finally came out with his version of Koestler in 2010, and it was greeted with relief as nothing like the “opinionated” bio by Cesarini. Here’s a bit from the New Statesman review:

“In 1998, David Cesarani published what Scammell describes as an "opinionated, thinly researched and heavily slanted biography, masquerading as a study of Koestler's Jewishness". That book dwelt heavily, and in prosecutorial fashion, on Koestler's taste for sexual violence. At the time, Cesarani was chided for being a censorious prude, and he certainly overdid it. However much he lamented Koestler's philandering, it is quite clear that when, for example, Koestler and de Beauvoir spent an unsuccessful night together, they were both too plastered to know what they were doing.
And yet, as often happens, the more objective and even-handed biography is the more damaging. One may admire Koestler as a writer, but it is hard to like him as a man after reading Scammell's book. Not even the most easygoing bohemian would wish to defend a man who wooed his second wife with the words: "Without an element of initial rape, there is no delight." It did not surprise me to hear, by way of hints from various women, that he was not in fact such a red-hot lover. "Initial rape" or not, the sheer gratification of getting a girl into bed was enough for him.”
Things had settled down, the world had liberalized, and maybe “initial rape” - or not! is distasteful. At least the women don’t like it. Even though, as Julian Barnes puts it, why would they have stuck around? It is almost as if there is a system that is working here, if only there was a name for it.
Scammell himself, however,  is more ready than Barnes to jump in with both feet. To apply the Weinstein defense even before Weinstein. For what was at fault was Koestler’s time, not the man:
“So what really happened? Given Craigie’s prominence as the wife of the former leader of the Labour opposition in Parliament and the fact that she had nothing to gain from her confession, the inference has to be that Koestler did behave extremely badly on that occasion, but it is worth trying to set this painful issue in context. The exercise of male strength to gain sexual satisfaction wasn’t exactly uncommon at that time. According to popular belief, it was a man’s prerogative to press his claims by all possible means and a woman’s duty to put up a show of resistance even if she was willing, so the line between consensual and forced sex was often blurred. Koestler had demonstrated similar behavior on his first night with Mamaine (to whom he later apologized and for which she forgave him) and with Simone de Beauvoir, who later described him as rough but never as a rapist, even after she had come to hate him.
He was almost certainly drunk, and he almost certainly behaved like thousands of other men of his generation (and since); he may also have regarded Craigie, who was thrice married and known to have had several affairs, as fair game and likely to welcome his overtures. She obviously didn’t but, like most women of her generation, seems to have responded by pushing the incident to the back of her mind and accommodating herself to it.”
The line, here, of men behaving badly, especially to “fair game”, and using a little of their “male strength”, so that the line between consensual and forced sex was often blurred”, is not a relict of the past. Rather, it is a relict of the past, present and future, one that will inevitably be pulled out as the pushback comes.

It is not only confederate monuments that need to be taken down.

Friday, October 27, 2017

read Elmore leonard or Leopoldo Sciascia, not the papers, to find out how things work

Trust the great crime writers. It was somewhere in one of Elmore Leonard’s Detroit novels, one set in the early eighties, that one crook complains to the other that now, legit businesses have taken up the Mafia style. Hardly make a dishonest living anymore.
In reality, we know that the line between mafias and establishments are thin, thin. I’m on vacation in Montpellier, and I’m rereading Scascia, my fave crime novelist, or political crime novelist, and cross referencing with Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily, which was written when Andreotti was on trial and there was a vivid sense of the overlap between the establishment and the mafias in Italy.
I’m also crossreferencing the spate of stories, in the New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/…/the-family-that-built-an-empire… and Esquire, about the Sackler family. Philanthropists, aesthetes, and the peeps responsible for about 17,000 oxycontin overdose deaths per annum. Although, like the mafia, the Sacklers learned early to put their name on other things besides their drugs. The Sacklers are post-mafia, representative of a whole new era in deregulation, when there are no rules, and no regulatory agencies that can’t be legally bribed. Bribery, you see, is a temporal thing. Give a regulatory hundreds of thousands before he makes a decision, and it is a crime. Give him a job with your organization two years after he made a decision in your favor, and everything is fine, fine fine.
These new rules took the place of the old rules, the New Deal – Great Society America, where the mafias were all about extorting and defrauding trade unions. The old Vegas times. There were actually consequences for corporate malfeasance. Not always, but often enough. Even in the early Bush era, there was the Enron moment, when they actually put some upper management people away. In the 80s that happened too. We remember Ivan Boesky, fondly.
But the general ethos from George W. to Obama to Trump is: there are no rules for the powerful.
No banker goes to jail nowadays. And putting in jail a man who pushed oxycontin to the point that rural America is a trail of oxy and heroin burnouts ignores the fact that he is a billionaire. So there is no chance whatsoever that he will be deprived of the merest tuppence. It’s America, Jake.
Still, the new world order of impunity can’t last forever. It can break, as it did in Italy – and lead to something worse.
Thus, I like reading Sciascia, who lived through this, and saw through this, and tried to keep his sanity. Although, as Robb points out, Sciascia was never pessimistic enough.
Pessimism is your friend.

Friday, October 20, 2017

vista and corner

The American eye expects a vista. We enter the Walmarts, the Target, the Walgreens, the mega-grocery store, and we expect to see the commodities arrayed there like the corn in Oklahoma fields, spread out, flat. We expect the great plains. When we come in, when we look at the goods extending as far as we can see, under one roof, we are pioneers, we are … we are that mythical creature from economics, the sovereign consumer. We see the checkout counter on one side, and we see the staff in their designated shirts doing inventory. We don’t think of that staff as advisors, fellows who have solved our consumer problems, but as walking signposts, to whom we can ask directions.
In France, on the other hand, what confronts us are corners.
Vistas abhor a corner.
Yesterday we went shopping for Adam’s birthday. We have incautiously invited his class to a party, tomorrow, in the park, and  the class responded with a large yes. So now it was time to get little gift bags together, as well as getting Adam his gifts. So we headed to Village JoueClub, which is located in the Passage des Princes, near the Grand Magasins. The Passage turned out to be one of those beautiful 19th century constructs that Walter Benjamin and the Surrealists raved about. The Village JC occupied the whole of it. But here’s the deal – the store was split into several stores, organized by several themes – outdoor games, toys for children under three, etc. – and each of these shops was typically French. That is, at no point were you given the Vista. Rather, you would enter near the counter, and some path would trickle back to a room that would then shoot away at a right or left angle. You would wander among these shelves with the curiosity of city walkers scanning the display windows rather than with the arrow like intentness of pioneers harvesting the prairie.
Against the American vista, the French pit the atelier, the artisan’s shop. To an American, it is a little weird. It feels more like a professional workspace, like a doctor’s office. In a doctor’s office, there are little rooms that seem to branch off from corridors that are doored off from the waiting room. The space is all about being a “patient” – that is, being patient. Patient is a big French word – when you stick your credit card into the machine for such, the screen will tell you to patientez. To bear up, to bear suffering, to endure – such are the etymological roots. It is not something American machines tell you.
Yet, as we all know, the sovereign consumer is a joke, a cardboard king in a kingdom of parity products, cheaply manufactured, quickly running to shabby. The distance from the atelier of manufacture is naturalized in the vista, the false vista, of all those commodities like plants.
But to continue with our story – so we had a great time buying toys at the Village JC. It overflows with trinkets and unfamiliar games, and it confines the legos, blessedly, to one shop. I’m crossing my fingers for the weather to be good tomorrow. I want Adam to be pleased.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


Who wants yesterday’s papers, the Rolling stones sang a long time ago. Then they became yesterday’s papers. And so will all of us.  
However, I’m doubtful about this, as about all other nuggets of Mick Jagger’s wisdom. Myself, I find yesterday’s papers much more interesting than today’s.

One of the great things about the internet – or no, let me go to 11, here, mes amis – the greatest thing about the internet is that it makes archives so instantly available to us. The prestige of the archive is, in part, derived from the fact that it is inaccessible. Archives conjure up the secret police. In fact, after revolutionary acts – such as the storming of the Bastille – everybody wanted to get their hands on the files of the Parisian police. But it wasn’t until late in the 19th century that a scholar, Francois Ravaisson, put them in order.  And now they are available on Gallica and archives.org and one can read the testimony of a prostitute named Mlle. July about her whipping sessions with the philosopher Helvetius. 

Of course, this may or may not have been true.  To rely on what the police collect and put in an archive for a factual picture of the world is like relying on the astrology column for proof that the General theory of relativity is valid.
But it is interesting.

 Newspapers, with their tabloid flights and their bourgeois judgments, are also filled with interesting items that may be true, or may be false, or end up somewhere in the wasteland between. But their age gives them a certain interest, if you have that cast of mind, that reading today’s papers lack. Sure, if you want to know what President Dumbass said at his press conference yesterday, then go ahead and read today’s Times. Myself, I think what President Dumbass said at his press conference will be much more interesting fifty years from now. It will have the interest of a mystery. Time will lengthen it – how did such a person become president? This is not, really, a question the news will answer.  It can only pose it. The news can tell you about the weather, but it is not very good at telling you about the climate.

Murders, kidnappings, and high end robberies are very good news items to mull over as time goes by. The newspapers of the 20s and 30s were much more unbuckled about crimes – they were all on the tabloid trail. The front pages  Plus, it was an incredible era of crime.
And, not least, the journalistic trade had not yet been absorbed by the journalistic major. Rather, newsmen very often came up from the street. They came at their stories roughly – pretty much the way their readers read them. The front pages were blessedly short of thumbsucker pieces telling us the meaning of it all. Consequently, front pages tended to look like chocolate boxes full of horrors. This, for instance, is a list of the headlines on the front page of the Madera Tribune, a paper that served the Fresno region in California, for December 31, 1937:
CHINESE PLAN GREAT OFFENSE – Natives Flee from Tsingtao
BLASTS ECHO AS PROPERTY OF JAP RAZED – Vigilante Group Organizes to Prevent Lootings by Chinese
MYSTERY OF LITTLE BOAT TOLD POLICE – Adventurer who Sought to Turn Pirate is Blamed for Death of Two
LOYALISTS ARE TRUSTING FATE TO AMERICANS – Volunteer Battalions Are Rushed to Front Lines to Battle Rebels
Hollywood Celebrities Routed in Raid Exclusive Night Club
Navy Mail Plane Crashes Into Bay
This was a paper to come home to. This is what fascinated millions of eyeballs in the evening, after swatting the kids and going to the icebox for a cold one. I’ve instanced this particular paper because one of the stories – about the “Mystery of the Little Boat” – is about a crime that illustrates the hop, skip, jump way secret histories – like crazy jigsaw puzzles – can amass on the Web. The little boat was an “ill-fated yacht” named Aafje, which was owned by a wealthy Santa Barbara “sportsman”, Dwight L. Faulding. Faulding’s boat was chartered by a man named Jack Morgan, who came aboard with his pregnant, 17 year old wife and a nurse. Also aboard was a photographer who often sailed with Faulding and a guy named George Sternack, described as a “guest”. It turns out that Jack Morgan, having absorbed a number of gangster movies, had decided to make the Aafje into his pirate boat, and to that end he plugged Faulding and threw him into the sea, and terrorized the rest of the passengers.
“It had been Morgan's'plan, since he had no money, to steal his provisions at ports that he passed, or
take them by force as the occasion arose, federal men believed. Apparently he was making foi some south sea island where his wife could give birth to their child with the nurse in attendance.”

Morgan’s plan ended abruptly with Morgan, when Horne and Sernack snuck up behind him and one of them bashed in his head with a marlin spike. Then they threw his body in the drink, and sewed an SOS message to their sails. They drifted and starved, until the SOS was spotted by a plane and the coast card cruiser, Perseus, took them in tow.

The Aafje is an interesting craft to track. I am not the only pursuer, here – others have been on the trail, due to the yacht’s later association with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Some information I have gathered comes from websites devoted to that LSD cult.

After the Faulding murder, the yacht was up for sale. Errol Flynn announced he was buying it, on account of the story of Crazy Jack Morgan. But apparently he did not. Instead, it ended up in the hands of Bob and Evelyn Gaylord, who made a troubled voyage in it in the early sixties. Going from Hawaii to California, they were blown wildly off course and ended up near the Aleutian islands, from whence they limped down the West Coast and docked in San Francisco. The boat was sold at some point to a man named Travis Ashbrook, and here it again enters the annals of crime. Travis Ashbrook was a famous surfer; he was also a famous head. Many of the star surfers on the West Coast were attracted to drugs and selling drugs, and, in true sixties fashion, they formed a drug commune that they named The Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Ashbrook was an adventurer. He went to Afghanistan in the mid sixties and came back with a load of hashish to die for. Many eventually did. It was the beginning of the Hippie road through Central and Southeast Asia.

In the late sixties, early seventies, Ashbrook bought the Aafje. In Orange Sunshine, Nicholas Shou’s books about the Brotherhood, it is stated that Ashbrook knew about Crazy Jack Morgan, which was one of the attractions of the boat. However, Ashbrook didn’t quite get the point of the story: don’t try to navigate a boat in the Pacific if you don’t know how to navigate a boat. The crew that Ashbrook put together – mostly ex surfers and heads - got lost, along with its tons of Sinaloa marijuana, for weeks on its maiden voyage out of Manzanilla. It finally did, however, make it to Maui, and from the seeds that they brought, they started growing ever more powerful Hawaiian pot – Maui Wowee, famous in song and old codgers’ stories.

Such is only one story, culled by chance from yesterday’s papers. The intersection of the newspaper and the internet, of the ambiguous collection of fact and scoop and the millions of witnesses testifying in blogs and listservs endless has not really been explored, or even scoped out, yet. It is a new form of archive. I don’t even have a name for it. Neo-antiquitarianism?

Monday, October 16, 2017

a prick in the prick system

When O. was president, I often wrote bitterly critical things about what his administration was doing and what was happening in America. But to use the metaphore du jour, I was not entirely woke.

 Trump is a wake up machine. He is, as well, an outgrowth of processes that have been at work in the U.S. since well before the age of Reagan. I think of these processes as the counter-civil rights revolution, not dissimilar to the inertial backwardness that allowed the Jim Crow system to spring up after the Civil War. That took a hundred years to dissolve. Do we have that much time left?

One of the areas where the counter-revolution has succeeded in driving us “back” not to the 1920s, but to, oh, the 15th century under Henry 8, is in the court system.

If Amnesty International weren’t a puppet of the U.S. and the E.U., it would have to mark down the court system in the U.S. as something akin to the court system in Uzbekistan.

Currently, the vast vast majority of criminal cases are never brought to jury trial. There’s a simple reason for this. Although Americans have a formal right to a trial, in reality, that right is abrogated by the threat, which is entirely legal, that maintaining that right will add years to your sentence. We’ve watched prosecutors do this, and judges approve it, without ever questioning it. When your “right” to a trial is loaded down with such vicious punitive consequences, and the prosecution has financial resources far outstripping those of most defendents, what you have is a kangaroo court.

Kangaroo courts depend, lopsidedly, on the vulnerability of the defendents. Thus, when the defendant isn’t vulnerable, when the defendant has money, the system rolls over. The disgusting stuff about Cy Vance, who let Harvey Weinstein pass but whose office routinely jails thousands of poorer offenders for lesser offences, has popped up in the news like some chancre. TheNYT prides itself on covering this, but in fact, the NYT should have shameshame shame for never revealing the way the prosecutor’s office works untilthey have celebrity meat in their mouth. 

You can read the story for its appalling sexism. Or you can also read it as a blueprint for the impunity culture that is the direct result of losing our justice system. It is, in fact, a natural result. The justice system, without justice, becomes a tool of predation. What happened, or didn’t happen, with Weinstein, should be paired with what we know happened, and happens, on a daily basis in Ferguson, Missouri, where the police and the courts essentially mafia the population, and turn working class indigence into lifetimes of misery, one by one, hundred by hundred, thousand by thousand.

“Mr. Weinstein, meanwhile, appeared determined to stay as far away from court as possible. He denied any wrongdoing and quickly retained Elkan Abramowitz, a former law partner of Mr. Vance, as well as Daniel S. Connolly, another former prosecutor turned white-collar defense lawyer.

Linda Fairstein, a former Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor who had once written an article in Vanity Fair about her dream of doing a movie deal with Mr. Weinstein, agreed to consult. She was a close friend of Martha Bashford, head of the district attorney’s sex crimes bureau, and facilitated an introduction for Mr. Abramowitz. It was, she said, the type of thing she does for fellow lawyers. “Calling Ms. Bashford to tell her who Elkan was and to ask her to consider meeting with him is the kind of thing I do four to six times every year,” said Ms. Fairstein, who said she had determined Ms. Battilana’s complaint was unfounded. Ms. Bashford declined a request for an interview.”

This is utterly unsurprising. We’ve heard from Weinstein’s victims mostly because they are stars. I think there are probably non-stars – maids, secretaries, etc. – who also have stories, but we will never hear from them.

Cy Vance, Jr. is egregious. When Bill Clinton and Donald Trump’s friend, billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, was sent to prison for basically pimping and raping under-age girls. This was in Florida. He’s operated with impunity for years. If his earnings had been those of your standard pimp’s, he’d be inprison for thirty some years. Since he was a billionaire, he served 13 monthsin a Palm Beach jail. However, he was labelled a sex offender. 

 This is the kind of thing that happens to small fry. So when he got out and moved back to Florida, he petitioned not to be labelled a sex offender.

At a sex offender registration hearing in 2011, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Gaffney shocked a Manhattan judge by recommending that Epstein be classified as a Level One offender — the lowest on the sex fiend scale.

“I have to tell you I am a little overwhelmed because I have never seen a prosecutor’s office do anything like this,” Justice Ruth Pickholz said, according to records. “I have done many (sex offender registration hearings) much less troubling than this one where the (prosecutor) would never make a downward argument like this.”

Gaffney justified asking for the lower level because Florida federal officials had allowed Epstein to plead guilty to just one count — even though Palm Beach police said there were multiple victims.”

Vance’s office changed their tune when the spotlight was played on this particular quid pro quo-bee. The judge made him a class three offender – which, astonishingly, Vance’s department appealed.
It’s Manhattan, Jake. Cy Vance’s job title should be reconstituted. Maybe District Attorney for the Successful. If you are rich, Cy's by your side. 

But though the man is obviously a prick, he’s a prick in a prick system. One that was given away in my lifetime.

Hard to explain this to the future.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

distance effects

I don’t believe that conservatives or Trumpkins suffer, for the most part, from some empathy disorder. There's a discussion of  Corey Robin's book up at Crooked Timber in which there are many mentions, among the commentariat, that the Right is just a mass of moral failure, built on a deeper emotional deficiency. I don't think this is true, or, more to the point, that there is any evidence for it. 

So what makes for the visible lack of empathy among conservative groups for certain groups?  I would look for the way empathy gets into our social action more than for how our neurons work, here. A neural interpretation of ideology might seem real scientific, but it is no more scientific than, say, an atomic view of ideology. It is reductionism in a void - the void being our vast, vast ignorance about how evidence of our neural processes actually work on the higher level of personal and social interaction. Instead, we read backwards, from those interactions to the neural maps. What seems like science is actually slight of hand - the kind of thing that impresses New York Times op ed editors.  

I'd propose, more modestly, that there is a difference in the way distance is interpreted. There’s a famous essay by Carlos Ginzburg, Killing a Chinese Mandarin: The Moral Implications of Distance, in which he explores the background to a famous scene in Pere Goriot – the one in which Vautrin proposes (in a sort of colonialist koan} to Rastignac the following thought experiment. http://elplandehiram.org/documentos/JoustingNYC/Mandarin_Distance.pdf Ginzburg If you could gain a fortune just by wishing the death (a wish that would be effective) of a Chinese mandarin half way around the world, would you do it? The point is that distance – and the way we make distances, geographically, ethnically, economically, sexually, etc. – has a global effect on our moral sentiments. I would say that the distance making in the Trumpian era of conservatism is going back to an earlier form of it, at least in the U.S., which last became this virulent after WWI. 

Interestingly, the symbol that Trump wrapped his campaign around is the “wall”, this mythical distance fixer that would forever separate white “authentic” America from Mexico (the brown mixed America, I guess).

It isn’t as if liberal culture doesn’t deal in distance as well. When HRC (and I voted for her, in spite of this) ran as a vaguely feminist politician, she never spoke at all about why, then, she would have ended her days in the state department signing off on appallingly large arm sales to the Saudis. Imagine a politician in the 80s running as a civil rights candidate and at the same time offering major support for the Apartheid South African state. But I think this was another case of distance – both geographical and cultural – that simply excluded Saudi women from the moral consideration that one would give American women.

I’m not sure anybody is a master of the moral distances we exist among. I’m not. So I am not saying I understand how to counter distance effects. I’m just saying that they have to be read into the narrative of our political ideologies in order to understand them.

Monday, October 09, 2017

a free woman

Hugh Kenner defined the stoic attitude in terms that the historian of Greek philosophy might dispute, or at least modify, but that I find definitionally elegant: “the stoic is one who considers, with neither panic nor indifference, that the field of possibilities available to him is large perhaps, or small perhaps, but closed.”  
It strikes me that I can discern a sort of feminist stoic style in the work of certain twentieth century artists: Christina Stead, Nina Berberova, and Elizabeth Hardwick come to mind. They are feminist in having a strong self-consciousness of themselves as women, and, more extensively, of having an idea of the destinies allotted to women in societies filled with destructive male power; they are stoic, however, in having a certain dryness of perception with regard to the sentimental education by which female collaboration is extracted.  In other words, they, too often for some tastes, sacrifice the bonds of solidarity to the distance required by intelligence. Sometimes this distance asserts itself by denying any feminism at all, as happens in the case of Christina Stead.  
I’ve been reading Nina Berberova’s great autobiography, The italics are mine – the French translation is, I do the underlining – and thinking how tough this woman was. Here  literary career, as far as the metropoles of publishing are concerned, occurred when she was eighty, when her stories and novellas and autobiography came out.
She lived the life of a “free woman”, in Doris Lessing’s phrase. There’s a subtle tonal shift from liberated woman – for to be liberated is to be the subject of emancipation, to be freed – to undergo that passive tense – while Berberova, and Lessing, thought of themselves as existing outside of that passive tense. They were in privileged positions – but the privilege was internal. Certainly that was the case with Berberova, who endured starvation in Soviet Russia, and crushing poverty in Paris, and the Nazi occupation, all without questioning her joy in energy, her own energy.
I’m going to write about her again.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

a visit to the Musee de l'homme

It looked like Adam would like La Musee de l’homme.

Adam likes mummies. He horrified some of his classmates in room 5 in Santa Monica by bringing a book about “buried treasure” to share day that had a chapter on Pompeii with photographs of various lava encrusted victims – a dog, a child, three people. As well, this book had pictures of mummies excavated from a site in South Egypt, in the desert. It was quickly decided among Adam and his friends that mummification follows lack of water.  Dehydration, variously pronounced.
So in Paris, we went to the Egyptian section of the Louvre and Adam saw his first real live mummy. Adam knows that mummy’s are dead. He knows that they are only alive in cartoons and movies that “aren’t real.” However, he knows this fact like an uncertain atheist knows that God is dead. It is a fact that could spring a leak. This makes mummies all the more fascinating.
When we looked on the site for the Museum of Mankind, it bragged that the Museum held more than sixty mummies. It had pictures. Leathery bodies. Leathery faces in that decayed agony, toothless mouths gaping, hands up, as though in a scream, that Adam finds scary and interesting. It is partly bluff, Adam’s way of not “being a baby”. Baby has becomes, somewhere, an insult. This makes me sad, and I reason with him, but there’s no reasoning a boy on the brink of five out of the supposed insult of acting younger than he is.
We got on the bus at Hotel de Ville, and we went to the back so that we could all three sit, and Adam could look at the various buildings rushing by in the October gloom. There’s the Louvre. There’s the obelisk. See the tower? The Eiffel tower he immediately recognizes. It was a flattening day, though, and everything looked smaller and meaner. Until we got off at Trocadero and the Eiffel tower decided to stretch up, up, before our eyes. Up, then, to the Musee, with A. and I thinking, a crepe would be nice right now.
I liked the Museum as soon as we entered the main exhibition space. There was a satisfactory number of skulls – even a superfluity of them. The skulls of chimpanzees. The skulls of Neandrathals. The skull ladder that leads up to Homo Sapiens. I’ve read enough Stephen Gould to know that the ladder image is wrong, but the Museum of Mankind, with its beginnings in the 19th century, hasn’t quite shaken that off. The mummies on the ground were few – but the one on display had also been on display in Adam’s book of mummies. It was disinterred in Peru and shipped here who knows how many years ago. The hands, with long fingers, cradle the face, as though in woe. We, with our living skeletons, bring the memento mori to the skeletons, and to this gray remains of a face. Who really know if the mummy’s owner really did die in horror – in some scene of sacrifice of the kind conjured up by century’s of orientalism.
We went through the first and second floor, marveling, Adam coursing ahead of us like an unleashed dog, on the trail of the next skeleton, the next fossil. As the broad humanid sweep narrows to modern times, one can’t help feeling some decrease in the grandeur of it all. Electricity and plastic may be nice, but they are exhibited, here, as parts of the way human being change their environment. And that change seems, well, trivializing, as compared to cave paintings and mysterious migrations.
Then we ate, with the Tower bulging outside the window. It was good! Tart, sandwhich, salad. Cheap for museum grub. Then we paused, A. and I. The feeling of having walked a long way, although we really hadn’t.

On the way out, we bought things for Adam, including a kit we later regretted, which consisted of a sandy ball in which some shark teeth were embedded. To get them out, you had to file away on the ball. This morning, we are still finding sandy dust around the apartment. Plus, two supposed shark teeth float in the glass we usually use for rinsing in the bathroom.   

Thursday, October 05, 2017

reflections on killing

The rhetoric around killing is always full of euphemisms. Soldiers, in the euphemistic parlance, “protect us”. Drone bombings “target terrorists”. If you crash two jets into the World Center, you’ve committed a massive act of “terrorism”, and if you carelessly evacuate Fallujah and go street by street wiping out armed insurgents, you have “pacified” it.
All involve dancing around putting holes in human beings, burning them alive, crushing their vertebrae, smashing their internal organs, chopping off their limbs, and otherwise butchering them with less surgical precision than is brought, normally, to the butchering of a calf for veal.
So the struggle to define what Stephan Paddock did goes on without questioning the dressing we put around butchery. Nobody wants to say that any nation that bombs another nation in a display of “Shock and Awe” is definitely and explicitly engaging in terrorism. Or that terrorism is the logical, pathological effect of any attempt to sheer off parts of a human being, perforate them, explode them, boil them, incinerate them, poison them, and otherwise operate on what we know about human pain centers.
This has long been noticed by the best observers. When the King of Italy was assassinated by anarchists in the 1890s, Tolstoy wrote a level headed little essay about the moral condemnation allotted to the assassin and withheld from the King, and all the rulers of Europe, and of the U.S., when they directed mass murder as public policy.
Here’s Tolstoy: “When Kings are executed after trial, as in the case of Charles L, Louis XVI., and Maximilian of Mexico; or when they are killed in Court conspiracies, like. Peter Ill., Paul, and various Sultans, Shahs, and Khans-little is said about it; but when they are killed without a trial and without a Court conspiracy- as in the case of Henry IV. of France, Alexander ll., the Empress of Austria, the late Shah of Persia, and, recently, Humbert- such murders excite the greatest surprise and indignation among Kings and Emperors and their adherents, just as if they themselves never took part in murders, nor profited by them, nor instigated them. But, in fact, the mildest of the murdered Kings (Alexander 11. or Humbert, for instance), not to speak of executions in their own countries, were instigators of, and accomplices and partakers in, the murder of tens of thousands of men who perished on the field of battle ; while more cruel Kings and Emperors have been guilty of hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of murders.” 
The cut rate go to guy for cutting through the bullshit in modern times has been Orwell – but Orwell’s truth speaking pulls up well short of Tolstoy’s. In fact, one of Orwell’s most interesting essays is about the problem of Tolstoy. But that would take us too far afield.
One thing that was different about Tolstoy’s time was that the technology of murder – beautiful beautiful weapons – and the aesthetics of representation had not merged quite so much. Theater in the nineteenth century was operating at the same time as the quantum leaps in weaponry, but theater did not fall in love with it. It did not feature the Gatling gun. It did not feature the bomb.
Cinema, though, from early on, embraced the weapon as its coeval. There was, perhaps, a recognition that montage and the firing of the machine gun shared a certain sequential form. The bullet was the movies in their most concentrated form. Or at least this is true of certain cinemas – mainly, the American one. From the Tommy guns of the gangster to the truckload of weaponry hoisted about in Arnold Schwarzenegger films, the art of killing has been filmed with undeniable love. Love’s a very powerful thing – according to Lucretius, it is love, not free will, that moves the nations and keeps the universe going. And that love has been absorbed by the populace it was aimed at – mainly masculine, mainly primed, by thousands of suggestions and hints, for violence. And yet, that love didn’t spill over, until the seventies, into weapon sales. In Hong Kong films, where the sequence of pistol, shot, and perforated human body is equally prominent, the “civilian” audience did not take the cue that this was a form of product placement. Not only does Hong Kong have an extraordinarily low homicide rate, which has kept falling even as the violence in HK films went ballistic, but it kept falling after the abolition of capital punishment. Criminologists (who do not recognize, normally, capital punishment as murder – Tolstoy would disagree) often compare Singapore, which has the highest capital punishment rate in the world, with Hong Kong, due to the similarity of their city-nation statuses. Both experienced huge drops in the murder rate in the 90s.
So, too, did the U.S. The difference is, of course, that the U.S. has always had a much higher murder rate than any of its peers. And it still does.
So: why is it that the beauty of weaponry has such a hold on the American heart that we try the weapons out on each other? I don’t have a clue about that. Like the motives for Stephen Paddock’s mass murder, the threads lead, I guess, to everything we hold to be normal – the work defined life, the grim trudging after money purely for the sake of money, the emptiness. Some answer floats there, I think. But this might be a jaundiced view.

Monday, October 02, 2017

We can make mass killings a win-win

Yes, as people from other cultures often say, Americans lack a reverence for life. The mass killing incidents prove it. 8 there in Fort Worth, 49 there in Orlando, 59 and counting in Vegas - on and on and on and on.
But what nobody can deny is that Americans have a sense of fun!
This is why we need to make these mass killing incidents more like the holidays they are.
What I'm proposing is that the NRA, in conjunction with the GOP and maybe Hallmark, come up with the appropriate card for Mass Killing day. Which definitely comes more than once a year! With the line, obviously, "Our thoughts and prayers go out to ...." It will be your city or township soon, don't worry!
Also popular would be, say, "it is too soon to politicize a human tragedy!" GOP politicos would be a big market for a card like that.
But the cards only handle a part of the mass killing event. How about a mascot?
What makes Christmas Christmas? Santa Claus. And what makes it better than Easter? Christmas has a more exciting mascot.
Which means that the mass killing mascot - Sparky is a good name - should be something we can identify with. I'm thinking a skunk with a machine gun. A cute skunk! The mascot, if it catches on, would be just the thing to explain the mass killing holiday to kids, who might otherwise think that their American parents are psychotic and evil for tolerating and encouraging mass killings with mass weaponry. Kids have fears, doctors say. Like the fear of being in a public place, like an elementary school, and being gunned down by someone with legally aquired semi-automatic rifles. But that only happens every once in a while!
So, if we can't make banning semi-automatic and automatic weapons into a reality - and we really really can't! - let's make it more fun.
Now all rise as I play the star spangled banner, please.