Tuesday, October 16, 2018

News from the post-anthropocene era

Another corporate gift to our children: Trump's EPA fires science panel because they were scientists and all. And scientists wildly believe the climate is changing disastrously because of... science! What could be sillier. Instead, believe your stock portfolio. So here is to the people making 2050 such a bad place to live. Thanks, and fuck you throughout all eternity.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

11 degrees of shakespeare

The discovery of degrees of separation is supposed to have been a mid-20th century event. The story goes that Stanley Milgram invented this idea and did a famous experiment to show how many degrees of separation there are between two arbitrarily chosen persons. The experiment involved sending a package through the mail to an arbitrarily chosen person and telling that person that the package was intended for a certain other person. The receiver was to send the package to someone who might know the ultimate recipient.  Milgram published his work in 1967.

All credit to Milgram. In an article on the small world hypothesis, as it is called in The Cut, Thomas Macmillan mentions some of Milgram’s predecessors:  

Some thinkers, however, had been quietly wondering if apparently unconnected people might in fact be linked. The idea of six degrees of separation is sometimes traced to a 1929 essay by the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy. And Milgram’s work was preceded by some calculations by political scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool and mathematician Manfred Kochen who in the 1950s estimated a greater than 50-percent chance that any two people could be linked by two intermediate acquaintances.”

However, I recently came across an essay by Leigh Hunt, written in 1834, which could have been called 6 degrees of William Shakespeare – instead of its real title, Social Geneology. Hunt’s idea is much like Milgrams, save for the fact that it is diachronic:

“It is a curious and pleasant thing to consider, that a link of personal acquaintance can be treaced up from the authors of our own times to those of Shakspeare, and to Shakspeare himself.”

And this is how Hunt diagrams the links:

With some living poets, it is certain. There is Thomas  Moore, for instance, who knew Sheridan. Sheridan knew Johnson, who was the friend of Savage, who knew Steele, who knew Pope. Pope was intimate with Congreve, and Congreve with Dryden. Dryden is said to have visited Milton. Milton is said to have known Davenant ; and to have been saved by him from the revenge of the restored court, in return for having saved Davenant from the revenge of the Commonwealth. But if the link between Dryden and Milton, and Milton and Davenant, is somewhat apocryphal, or rather dependent on tradition (for Richardson, the painter, tells us the latter from Pope, who had it from Betterton the actor, one of Davenant's company), it may be carried at once from Dryden to Davenant, with whom he was unquestionably intimate.  Davenant, then, knew Hobbes, who knew Bacon, who knew Ben Jonson, who was intimate with Beaumont and Fletcher, Chapman, Donne, Drayton, Camden, Selden, Clarendon, Sydney, Raleigh, and perhaps all the great men of Elizabeth's and James's time, the greatest of them all undoubtedly. Thus have we a link of " beamy hands " from our own times up to Shakspeare.

I love this list. Instead of the mystery of influence, which has long served as a linking word between the texts of authors, here we have a recognizable map of degrees of separation.  It is a fun exercise to see how many degrees of separation one has from William Shakespeare. My map would go something like this: I interviewed Carol Muske-Dukes, who told me that she met her late husband at a party held at her friend Jorie Graham’s mother’s house. Jorie Graham’s mother is Beverly Pepper, a sculpture, who knew Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway’s wife.  Hemingway knew Ford Maddox Ford, whose great aunt, Frances Rossetti, had a brother who was Lord Byron’s secretary. From Byron it is easy to proceed back down the links Leigh Hunt points to: Byron was great friends with Tom Moore, with whom he’d “go a-roving”, for instance. So from this I get 14 degrees from Will Shakespeare. I think I probably could do better than this if I cast a wider net. My grandfather’s father knew Mark Hanna, President McKinley’s eminence gris, due to the fact that he tried to sell the government on his torpedo invention; Hanna was on  the board of directors of a railroad with Charles Francis Adams, Jr., Henry’s brother. Charles remembered John Quincey Adams, his grandfather, who, when merely a teen, worked with his father, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin on diplomatic assignment in Paris during the American Revolution, and met the great whigs, among whom of course there was Sheridan. There are other ways I could do this: undoubtedly John Adam father knew Cotton Mather, whose own father was the child of the second marriage of John Cotton. John Cotton was the great debater and opponent of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. Roger Williams clerked under Sir Edward Coke, Elizabeth’s hardhearted justice, who investigated the Essex rebellion, which was lead by Shakespeare’s patron, and interrogated Shakespeare’s partner with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Augustine Phillips. I imagine Shakespeare at least knew of Coke, and probably met him.  So I can end up anywhere from nine to eleven degrees from Shakespeare.

This is a great game, and if I were a coder, I’d make it into a Facebook quiz and earn a sum that I could retire on. Being merely a sucker, I give it away free and challenge one and all to top my degrees.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Patience and the restless sleeper

There’s a thing about living in France that always amazes some outward suburban zone of my American brain: I go into the store, I get checked out by the cashier, I pull out my credit card, I put it in the little credit card machine, and a word appears on the screen: Patientez.
Be patient. In the United States, when dealing with machines, the signs and recordings are rarely rooted in such a quasi-moral, such a Ciceronian admonition. Rather, they tell you that they are busy processing your information. Or maybe they tell you that all operators are busy and please wait on the line until the next operator is available. But to be asked to wait is a moral degree away from being asked to be patient. Waiting, after all, can be done impatiently – it is all physics, it is all being a body in a place in time. Patience, however, is being a certain kind of subject, having a certain kind of attitude.
I’ve long had a Barthesian revery that if I could just understand the “patientez” sign, I would grasp some larger mythological characteristic of France. See the rest here.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

the trouble with the saudis and the trouble with the Americans

If I went to sleep in 2002 and woke up yesterday and read Tom Friedman's non-apology for kissing the ass of Saudi Arabia's young dictator - I would not know that it wasn't still 2002. The Middle Eastern "expert" clique is still morally corrupt and intellectually bankrupt, roll over Beethoven and give Grandma the news.

Also relics of 2002 is the cry that the only reason we are allies with, or complicit with, or in bed with, or making passionate love to the Saudis is cause of oil.

This is a half-truth. If you check, you'll notice that the level of American imports of oil from Saudi Arabia are at 1987 levels. We could easily do without that oil - we could substitute oil from Iran in one diplomatic turn, or Venezuela.
But the truth of the chestnut is that, as a result of decades of oil sales, the Saudi royal house and its hangers on had trillions of dollars to invest. Since the seventies, one of the best places to park your money and see it grow has been in the American financial sector. Money followed the usual track, then, which is how Saudi money is mixed up in whatever giant enterprise or IPO is on tap at the moment. The Saudis were notoriously dumb about this in the seventies, and the princes are notoriously lazy, but the had some smart hangers on, and they were able to buy fleets of smart American MBA types, and so the learning curve and American foreign policy bent together. The Saudis definitely made a smart move by investing in American media - at one point, notoriously, al -waleed bin talal owned a hefty piece of Fox News, as well as bits of Times-Warner, et al., which didn't hurt. The money went out, as well, to think tanks, lobbyists, and the ivory towers. Oftentimes, this was touted as some multi-cultural opening to Middle East culture, with the subtext, that the opening would be subservient to Saudi sensibilities, being muted. Sometimes, as recently, it is just your open, convivial corruption, typical of the T-Rump era. As for instance Harvard and MIT's offering of their prestige to Bin Salman in return for a chance to get in on an academic gold rush. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/30/elite-universities-selling-themselves-mit-harvard-saudi-arabia-mohammed-bin-salman

Even these modalities of Saudi influence would not explain the Saudi-American lockstep. To explain that on the political level, it is necessary to look at how the US (and the UK, and France) has used massive arms sales to the Saudis as an offset to the de-manufacturing policies they have generally pursued to keep consumer prices low and the return on investment for the wealthy high. Here, one must doff one's partisan hat: the status of the U.S. as the leading arms seller in the world became policy under Bill Clinton. Since then, it has been sealed in place through all the changes in the white house.

Here's a report from 1995 about the beginning of it all.

"In fiscal years 1993 and 1994, the executive branch (and Congress) signed-off on a staggering $100 billion of government and industry-negotiated arms deals. Moreover, the administration actively assisted industry by subsidizing marketing activities, lobbying foreign officials to "buy American," and financing several billions of dollars of sales.

The "new" guidelines call for business as usual: "the United States continues to view transfers of conventional arms as a legitimate instrument of U.S. foreign policy-deserving U.S. government support when they enable us to help friends and allies deter aggression, promote regional stability, and increase interoperability of U.S. forces and allied forces."

The prosperity of the nineties was the coming together of many streams, and this was definitely a politically fruitful one. Arms sales doubled in Clinton's first four years in office.

One could tell similar stories about other countries. Britain is notorious for sucking up to the Saudis to keep its airplane manufacturing alive. And so on.

Let's round out this little screed with an even more depressing observation. In 2002, Americans accepted, without a qualm or a quiver, the idea that certain weapons were weapons of mass destruction and certain weapons weren't. As the biggest arms dealer in the world, the U.S. was in a moral pickle here, but admirably, through a lack of any analysis of the phrase whatsoever, we were able to thread the needle that allowed the U.S. to sell the jets that could deliver nuclear missiles and even the missiles themselves, but not the atomic warheads - and pat itself on the back for its liberal and democratic way of life. Back in those days, this drove me crazy. Around the time that Libya "gave up" its atom bomb program - in return for contracts with the west that would sell it other weapons - I wrote a little blog column about it all.

268. Why can't my right hand give my left hand money? -- My right hand can put it into my left hand. My right hand can write a deed of gift and my left hand a receipt. -- But the further practical consequences would not be those of a gift. When the left hand has taken the money from the right, etc., we shall ask: "Well, and what of it?" And the same could be asked if a person had given himself a private definition of a word; I mean, if he has said the word to himself and at the same time has directed his attention to a sensation. – Wittgenstein

The philosopher treats a question like an illness. – Wittgenstein.

The disarmament of Libya is the latest episode in the preposterous policies generated by the bogus classification, “weapons of mass destruction.” The moniker applies, ironically, to weapons that have very rarely been implicated in mass destruction. The Uzi, the tank, the bomber – these very vendable items, of course, aren’t weapons of mass destruction. Rather, with its right hand, the West has stocked every country that could afford it with a supply of such things. That right hand has been busy, as even a cursory look at the arms sales totals could tell you. It is here, especially, that the 9/11 lie – the lie that 9/11 ‘changed everything’ – is stripped of its plausibility. While political factions in America throw charges of lying at each other, they both are comfortable with the structural lie, the one that kept Bush 1 and Clinton in the arms sales business, and that keeps Bush 2 there too. And the Swedes, Brits, French, Germans … let’s not leave out anybody. The Russians, of course, primus inter pares.

Ah, but then we have the sweep of the punitive left hand, disarming rock n roll tyrants like Khaddafi and putting all the editorial writers of the NYT to sleep with sweet dreams.... Libya giving up its laughable nuclear capacity is being taken as a sign of disarmament. We suspect that, long term, this is really a move to re-arm – to buy all the conventional weapons that Khaddafi longs for, and that the EU and the US longs to sell him. It has, after all, been a moneymaker in the past. Libya’s interest is not to regain some international stature – it is to keep up with its neighbors, to which it has been hostile in the past. In fact, recently Khaddafi has been stirring up coups in Mauretania. This, of course, without using the weapons of mass destruction – weapons of conventional destruction will do very nicely, thank you very much. So much for the tie between WMD and aggressive behavior. "

So this is just to say: our problems long long pre-date Trump. We don't need resistance, we need transformation.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Announcing Willett's Magazine

My distinguished pals:
I've been working on creating a magazine that would combine my wit - or witlessness - as I peacock it on this blog with the writings and musings, hopefully, of other peeps who I will pay in cash money - don't get excited, not a lot of cash money, this is me we are talking about - for their contributions. Of course, to pay in cash money I am going to have to beg for donations, which I'm going to do by going to one of those dumb crowdbegging sites and jumping through hoops and, presumably, bothering everybody who ever had the misfortune to link to me with my cup and doffed cap.

The name of the mag is Willetts. It is here.  Please think of sending me, at the paypal on this site, a donation. And those of you with ideas, from memoiring to reviews, or who would like me to commission a review, please drop me a line at rogergathmann@gmail.com

Today's article at Willard's is about the Abe Fortas Case: a lesson for Democrats.

Mother Jones, a magazine that has taken up the mantra of tut-tutting neoliberalism and run with it, has published an article that claims that it is a “liberal fantasy” to think of impeaching Brett Kavanaugh. The writer of the piece is their correspondent for covering the court, Stephanie Mencimer, so presumably she knows what she is talking about. This is her “wake up to the coffee” graf:
It’s never going to happen. If the Democrats can’t stop Kavanaugh’s confirmation in the Senate, there’s no way they’re going to be able to boot him from the bench after he’s secured his lifetime appointment. No Supreme Court justice has ever been successfully impeached and removed by Congress. The last time Congress even tried was in 1804. 
This, for Mencimer, disposes of the issue. Then she goes on to troll a bit how we don’t appreciate an “independent judiciary” anymore, like the elite slaveholders who founded the U.S. did.
Well, I have many bones to pick with the last part, but it is the first part I would like to direct my vitriol to.
Liberals would do well, at this point, to look to the Republican-directed pressure that was put on justices from the Warren court. One case stands out: Abe Fortas
When Abe Fortas died in 1982, his obituary was featured on the front page of the NYT. Since that time, his story has slipped into the national amnesia, save for that part of the national brain that consists of the Federalist society and its groupies. You could date the rightward shift, and the organization of one of the most powerful but underrated forces in the U.S., conservative legal activism, from the nomination of Abe Fortas by Lyndon Johnson to the post of Chief Justice, after Earl Warren stepped down.
Here’s the obituary thumbnail:
“Mr. Fortas resigned from the Court amid an uproar over disclosures that he had accepted a $20,000 fee from a foundation controlled by Louis E. Wolfson, a friend and former client who at the time of the payment was under Federal investigation for violating securities laws. His resignation ended a stormy three-and-a-half-year tenure on the Court, which included an abortive effort by President Johnson to name him Chief Justice, and made Mr. Fortas the only Justice in the history of the Supreme Court to resign under the pressure of public criticism.”
This happened in 1969, giving Richard Nixon his opportunity to put his impress on the Court.
So how did this happen?

In 1965, when LBJ nominated Abe Fortas, the editors of the New Republic commented:
“When the President nominated his friend Abe Fortas for the Supreme Court, he was rewarding Mr. Fortas' long-held, passionate faith in the statesmanship and liberalism of Lyndon B. Johnson - a faith not widely held or easily maintained in liberal and intellectual circles ten or even five years ago. But the President was able to reward a friend while at the same time appointing one of the ablest lawyers of his generation, and a lawyer who takes an exalted view of the court he is about to join. Little more than a year before his nomination and subsequent confirmation by the Senate, Mr. Fortas wrote of the court while paying tribute, in the Yale Law Journal, to another old friend. Justice William O. Douglas. "A man may live a long and active life - even in the aquarium of public office - without revealing and, indeed, without discovering his essential convictions. There are many hiding places; there are many factors which invite avoidance of this painful confrontation: the pressures of too little time; the exigencies of the moment; the rationalization engineered by the overwhelming virtue of self-preservation; the primacy of the need to accommodate one's views to those of others; the driving need for immediate results.”
Fortas here was worshipping at the idol of the lifetime appointment – the foundation of the “independent judiciary” so beloved by the Mother Jones correspondent. These words seem a little strange to us now: they speak more of a Straussian belief in the white lie, as the rulers nudge us into what they want us to do, then a faith in democratic forces and the wisdom of the crowd.
So what happened when Fortas was nominated to be Chief Justice in 1968 and the aquarium of public office was hurled at his head?
Fortas’s downfall was engineered by two deeply racist Dixiecrats, James Eastland of Mississippi and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. We can follow the story in further New Republic editorials:
Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who after the GOP convention must be reckoned a power in the Republican Party and in the country, told his delegation at one point in Miami Beach that if it held firm for Nixon he (Thurmond) would be mightily encouraged in his battle against the Fortas nomination. Shouts and handclaps greeted his assurance to the Carolinians that "We hope to defeat Mr. Fortas' confirmation" and "If we can defeat this confirmation, in my judgment it will be a turning point in this nation."
Strom was right. The Fortas hearings were all about how buddy-buddy Fortas was with LBJ. This might not seem like a reason to deny him the seat, but it was the excuse for what Eastland and Thurmond really wanted – a thoroughgoing excoriation of the Warren court and all its deeds, the worst of which, for the two racists, was the legal crushing of the idea that blacks were second class citizens forever and ever. But this motive, as always in the South, was merged with the idea that it was all the fault of the communists. As Thurmond said on Meet the Press:
… his decisions have turned loose criminals on technicalities; they have allowed communists to teach in schools and colleges; they have allowed communists to work in defense plants and his decisions have reversed the local communities and the lower courts on the matter of obscenity." And: "We [of the Senate Committee] are not trying him for impeachment but we are trying him (sic) to determine his qualifications to be Chief Justice and we think his decisions on the Court, in the way I have related them, show that he is not qualified to be the Chief Justice. In fact, I don't think he is even qualified to be on the Court."
Evidently the Republicans of Thurmond’s day disagreed with the Collins doctrine that Senators should not look at the ideology of candidates. I think that is a rule that is only evoked for far right wing candidates, anyway.
Abe Fortas remained on the Court after the battle of 1968. His downfall was coming, though, especially when the Thurmondesque president,  Richard Nixon, was elected. I would recommend reading an excellent Washington Post piece dated May 16, 1969, the chronology of Fortas’s downfall was unfolded. It started when William Lambert, a Life Magazine reporter, received a tip from anonymous government official that he should look into the relationship between Fortas and a crooked businessman named Wolfson, recently imprisoned for stock manipulation (yes, Virginia, at one time they actually imprisoned crooked businessmen, instead of bailing them out with huge loans).
Word spread in D.C. The news must have made John Mitchell, the new Attorney General, smile a bit and puff a bit more on his pipe. Mitchell, somehow, didn’t have compunctions about the fantasy of getting rid of a sitting Supreme: he saw how he could catch a rat and went about it. An assistant Attorney General interviewed Lambert.  And the Life news story came out with information about the 20,000 dollars given Fortas by the “charitable” foundation set up by Wolfson.
The Republicans went on the attack in the House, while in the Senate Ted Kennedy said this was a very serious charge. It should be noted that Fortas’s friendship with LBJ would not make him a friend of the Kennedies.
On May 6, Nixon met with the Republican caucus and urged them (to repressed giggles, no doubt) not to make Fortas a partisan matter. One of the attendees asked if there was more on Fortas to be discovered. To which Mitchell gave the one word answer: yes.
On May 10, Mondale was the first Senator to suggest Fortas resign. The Republicans must have been happy about that. In the house, H.R. Gross of Iowa (GOP) called for empaneling a Federal jury to make a sweeping investigation of Fortas. But in the end, Fortas’s resignation brought him relief from the hounds.
This is a story about Democrats running water for the Republicans. There will not be a similar scene if the Dems take the house, and Representative Nadler really investigates Kavanaugh. But Democrats can take some hints from the Fortas affair. Leak to the press. Keep the pressure up. And use the power you have to call for a larger investigation of the Justice. If you don’t get him to resign, you can wound him to the extent that the Supreme Court will definitely start smelling of illegitimacy. Because… the Supreme Court is illegitimate. It is the result of sheer brute political strength, exerted by the GOP. As an arm of the Republican party, the respect one should, theoretically, have for an “independent judiciary” is simply a farcical exercise in swallowing the dictates of the D.C. elite and pretending it is some kind of civic duty. Our civic duty, at this point in time, is the exercise of countervailing power,  civil disobedience, and protest at the Court. Probably for a long, long time.  


Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Yeats and spelling

Does it help that Yeats was dyslexic?

The editors of his letters, where the texts are raw, have decided that Yeats’ spelling was idiosyncratic. That’s a good word. It doesn’t have the same word-injuring psychosis, the same serial killer among the letters, that is baked into dyslexia. Rather, it understands that spelling is a curious procedure, full of mirrors and disorientations. A spell, as Yeats (who at one point belonged to the same organization as Aleister Crowley, the Golden Dawn) was always aware, was a matter of magical summoning. Spelling, too, is a magical summoning, made domestic by our schoolrooms and four hundred years of rules, so that the words appear under our pens. That the first words we learn to spell are often animal names makes complete sense from this point of view, for animals were, after all, the first things humans drew. But there’s a certain graffiti impulse that lies just outside the spelling book, under which we run away from the rules concerning what to write on and how to write it, and go cave man for real.

I grow old, I grow old. I am too old for emoticons. And graffiti spelling does sometimes assault my sense of the order of things. Yet I am helped by the thought that Yeats was as apt to spell “there” “their” as not. I really am.

Friday, September 07, 2018

on the bezos bill

Senator Sanders so called Bezos bill has caused an interesting backlash. Some liberal economists, like Jared Bernstein, think that the bill will result in unemployment.

In brief, the bill proposes to charge those companies, like Amazon and Walmart, who make a habit of employing workers at such a low wage that they have to depend on foodstamps. Basically, Sanders bill calls this a social cost that the company should shoulder.

Bernstein’s worry is that the workers will be fired, since the company does not want to shoulder that cost. It is an interesting worry, because it depends on the assumption that there is enough slack in the logistical or clerical line that certain workers will be priced out. In other words, X company employs X amount of employees to get a certain task done – stock shelves, load packages onto trucks, etc. But they hire more than they need. Thus, they can fire some without endangering the process by which products are transported, shelved, checked out, etc. However, even if this is so – and in a near full employment situation, this is more plausible than in a less than full employment situation – they are still going to have to pay for the social costs or raise the pay for those employees doing these tasks. They can’t just not do them. So it is not at all clear to me that this argument works. Firstly, at the least slack in demand, these workers will go anyway. Secondly, the incentive to pay workers more, in order to avoid shouldering the government mandated costs, is good for the remaining workers.
Another argument, and frankly, a dumber one, has been presented by Dylan Matthews, at Vox. His argument is pretty much that we rely on big corporations to get the crummy social welfare that we already have. If we do this, who knows but that the corporations will turn against the whole idea of food stamps. As proof of this hitherto unseen altruism lurking in the corporate heart, Matthews adduces Walmart’s contribution to a think tank that leans towards increasing the social welfare net, and he tweets: “Walmart's strong support for food stamps (because it means more poor people can buy food at Walmart) is one of the few non-shit things about America's fucked up political economy, and something that ought to be encouraged rather than assailed.”

A funny thing about that strong support: according to a report in 2014 described on Huffington Post, “59 percent of the Walmart PAC’s contributions to House members who voted on the minimum wage increase went to candidates who opposed the increase, while 95 percent of the Waltons’ contributions went to candidates who opposed the increase.” Now, I know this is takin’ a big leap, but I’d guess, in America’s fucked up political economy, that you could draw a venn diagram of people who support food stamps and those who support restricting food stamps and freezing the level of them and the people who oppose increasing the minimum wage, and you would see a nearly total overlap. We could start with Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who is well known for wanting to squeeze out the number of people getting food stamps with various bureaucratic procedures weeding out those on disability.

So my idea is that no, Walmart’s eyes on the prize do not entail going to the mat about food stamps.
Now, to address what these liberals and neo-liberals don’t: the discouragement built into a system in which work gets you food stamps. The number of men who have opted out of employment over the past 20 years is a pretty significant factor in the Heartland. One of the reasons is that wages are low. You can make equal money by using the social welfare net. Charging corporations for using that social welfare net as a labor cost cutter might actually provide incentives for these men, as the wages rise to avoid the charges entailed by the surcharges created by corporate rentseeking.

This is one possibility, at least, and it is more likely than the possibility that Walmart, stung to its philanthropic core by the Bezos bill, will cease supporting food stamps.

There might well be a model or argument out there that makes a more plausible case for the Bezos bill having a downside. But these arguments surely aren’t it.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

why grow up?

In etymological circles, there is a hot dispute about the etymology of the Latin word elementum. One theory holds that this is an outgrowth from the Etruscan, and the other theory holds that it is definitely, absolutely and completely not. Things get complex. The Oxford English Dictionary blog has a fascinating discussion (fascinating at least for some people) of where elementum comes from, and why it, rather than abecedarium, took up the space for letter or particle. From this discussion, I only want to point out one Harry Potterish thing, which is that elementary school, which is the name for grammar school in the U.S., could easily have been abecedarium school, with a few tweaks in our philological history.

In France, the terms are ecole primaire and ecole elementaire – I think the latter is gaining currency due to the occupation of France of an American version of English. And the first cycle begins with CP. That first cycle began two days ago, and swallowed Adam.
Of course, children grow up. But this fact – like the fact that the sun will grow cold someday, that the universe will ultimately shrink to a dot of nothingness, that all men are mortal, that the sea is indifferent to the drowning man – is a fact for the head, not the heart. The heart’s fact is that inexplicably, it is the end of the vacation, and the end of pre-school, and here our boy is, lined up with the others, marching off to a classroom to learn all the things that one learns, growing up. The French system is all about parents on the outside. For the first day – the rentrée – parents were allowed, as a special treat, to penetrate the building with their kids. It was an oddly reassuring experience, because the principle of the school took the opportunity to scold us. It made me feel young. The message was: don’t bring your kid to school late! And it put such fear into us that it took us two days to have a bit of a crisis, looking up and seeing it is 8:27 and we had to get Adam there in three minutes. Luckily, the school is only one minute, or one block, away.
On the plus side, there is the reading the writing the rithmatic the sports the social life – on the down side is – where is our baby?
I imagine that this is a universal cry, shared by frogs and bower birds as well as human beings. Adam was primed, however, for his first day. He’s got his sac à dos, his pencils, his cahier (the means of communication between parent and teacher and school in general, an ingenious bureaucratic tool that goes against the Barbaric Yawp of the American anarchy, where the most we have our report cards and notes home from the teacher that we conveniently drop in the bushes on the way home). I’ve been thinking about what comes after Adam learns to read French – do I give him lessons in reading English? Will that be hard? Too hard?
I cannot remember my first day in a real school. I do remember that I liked school, and found that I had a rapport with teachers. I felt like they liked me. On the other hand, I never had that experience that I think is common for people like me, the ones seemingly designed for the classroom: the feeling of having a model in one teacher or another. I never felt like I wanted to be like my teachers. I never felt like I wanted to be a teacher. I think I wanted to be an explorer. Or the president, or a baseball player. And as time moved on, I wanted to be an unhappy, alienated artist living in an expressionistic city landscape, frequenting taverns. But teacher – no. Now, when it is way to late in life’s sweet bitter mystery, I think maybe I shoulda been a teacher. At an abecedarium.
Too late. Too late.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018


I was truly psyched, this morning, that the angry internet mob forced David Remnick to disinvite Steve Fascist from the New Yorker's ideas party.
And I'm going to use this as a plug for my essay on the Books and Film Globe site, since it is relevant.
What I was trying to argue didn't have a snappy label. Now I've come up with one: hyperliteracy.
The thing one reads, over and over, is that "nobody reads anymore." N+1, a supposedly lefty site, just featured an editorial that went over the ground with a special hauteur, like the Marquis complaining about the gardner:
"Gone are the happy days when we dialed up to submit a comment to Salon.com, only to be abused by Glenn Greenwald or destroyed — respectfully — by the academics at Crooked Timber. Back then, we could not have imagined feeling nostalgic for the blogosphere… Even those who stridently disagreed shared some basic premises and context… Today’s internet, by contrast, is arbitrary and charmless. On social media, criticism once confined to the comments now comes as free-range abuse directed at other readers. Readers can address all parties instantaneously — writers, editors, publishers, and the world. And so writers who publish online peer into the fishbowl of readerly reception. Drop in some flakes and watch the fish swarm.”"
The idea that nobody reads is contiguous with, and overlaps, the idea that everybody is out there in a meanspirited twitter mob, shaming and destroying freedom of speech left and right.
Myself, I'm for the mob. But even if I wasn't for the mob, I would do a little more thinking about this idea of the writer on one side and the readerly swarm on the other side. Like, where does that idea come from?
Here I'm gonna quote my piece:
"The N+1 article is balanced on a division between the writer and the reader – as if we were still in a space where this division was socially absolute. But that has long been swept away. Rather than fishes swarming, readerly reception is now transformed, almost instantly, into writerly reception. It is as if the dull kids in the back of the classroom, the ones who passed around notes, are now in the front of the classroom, writing on twitter. Which is just another form of classroom note. And the authors are not amused. Like teachers, they suspect that the amusement those notes are causing is distracting from the very important lessons being drawn on the blackboard.
The writerly revolution has still not been fully comprehended, I think. Literacy, until recently, has been thought of as largely passive. In the early modern period, learning to read did not necessarily entail learning to write: women, for instance, who formed even then the most ardent corps of readers, were often not instructed in writing. But both functions became one in the great literacy campaigns of the nineteenth century. Still, just as math beyond primitive algebra were taught to the masses and immediately forgotten by most of the masses, who had no practical use for them, the tools of writing were often used rarely after high school.
All of this has changed in a historical instance. The child who doesn’t know how to use the keyboard on the cell phone is now a rarity. Writing on the popular level has caught up with reading. Twitter is a fascinating place to watch the collision between an older form of literacy and a newer one. Far from being the “cesspit” that older media peeps – and the cranky formerly hip denizens of N+1 – like to despise, it is creating its own vocabulary, its audio-visual forms, its links, its infradig references. It is the old story of the modern: make it new."
We passed a threshhold we don't recognize. Barthes's death of the author entailed, necessarily, the death of the reader, because these were functions in a system of literacy that depended on a relatively small number of people having access to both sides of the literate paradigm. Now, everybody is on both of those sides. The readerly swarms are writerly swarms - they comment and gloss with no sense that they are violating some hierarchy. Far from being the end of reading, this is what hyperliteracy looks like, the crown on a state sponsored effort that has spanned two centuries. The tools of the old penmen have been given to us all. And we should fucking use them.

Friday, August 31, 2018

my distinguished pal

We sit down to the expanded energy footprint we have bought, and we unwrapped the hamburger and cheeseburger, free the toy from its plastic sack, open the box and take out the fries, open the plastic bottle and insert the plastic straw through the plastic top of the sprite cup, and go through the comestibles. Ah, two catchup packets. Adam tries to open one of them, but I lend a hand, finally. He’s getting the hang of the knife and fork business, and easily strips the paper from the straw, but opening those sacks that have been carefully pre-perforated for easy opening, with the arrows pointing to the appropriate place to grab, still evades his tool sense, his understanding of affordances. I am thinking, as I always think at Old McDonalds, how can all this stuff be so cheap? Adam takes a satisfied look at the table, turns to me, and says, “thanks, my distinguished pal.”
Adam is now five and 10 months, and he has been learning all about linguistic affordances, in both English and French. Of course, part of that is understanding words and grammar. But it also means getting your tongue around catch phrases. Which proliferate, the age of YouTube.
My distinguished pal. Did he pick this up from Bugs Bunny, or Scooby Doo, or Tom and Jerry, or the horror shows – tales of the cryptkeeper, the Haunting Hour, Goose Bumps – that we, his permissive parents, have allowed him to see? I don’t see the harm, although when he sat at the table at his grandparents’ house a few days ago and said that he wanted a motorcycle, a black helmet, sunglasses like a movie star, a black shirt with a skull on it, and to join a motorcycle gang, I had a few qualms. The gang reference came from Scooby Doo. Adam thought the whole point of the gang was to roll up your t shirt sleeves so that you showed your shoulder. He thought that would be a hilarious thing to do. I had to agree.
My distinguished pal. When I was young, it was of course an unrelenting stream of tv – old movies, rerun tv series, cartoons. And I still, in an age where I am definitely past my sell-by date, remember some of them. I remember, for instance, Newton, the Centaur, calling out for Herc Herc Hercules. I remember seeing a gangster move with James Cagney, at the end of which he died, clutching his stomach and moaning, is this the end of Rico? I must have died like Rico a hundred times, over chairs, on sofas, in the dining room, in the living room, in the back yard. Each time was as fun as the first time.
Every life is full of muses. We just don’t recognize them, or trace their obscure workings and wendings as they sink into our lives. My distinguished pal.

Monday, August 27, 2018

avital ronell

I'm going to be writing for bookandfilmglobe.com as a book editor. Anybody who has an idea for a review or an article should query me! rogergathmann@gmail.com

And this is my latest, about avital ronell, teachers' pets, the culture wars, the state of the humanities, and the impunity of John Searle.

Monday, August 20, 2018

against the "legitimate right of a people to self-determination"

I had a twitter exchange with a man who accused me of being an anti-semitic shithead because I did not recognize the legitimacy of the Jews right to self-determination.  I called him a general shithead and accused him of being the anti-semite. Things went from there, in the usual twitter way.
However, if I had not felt like insults were in order, I might have surprised him by saying that I am opposed to the principle of self-determination period. I think that every nation state that grounds its legitimacy in ethnic identity is on the road to fascism. Sooner of later such a state will either have to re-constitute its legitimacy or become a racist state, and as such, begin suppressing criticism and begin the process of institutionalizing second class citizenship.
The principle of the nation state was, up until the 1840s, I’d say, almost never identified with some ethnic group, rather than with a royal family, or a religion. The Atlantic revolutions identified something different, what Rousseau called the popular will. But that will was not identical to being, say, White male and protestant – even though the U.S. was, of course, founded by White Males who were predominantly protestant and often slave owners.
The romantic state, as I’d call it, changed this formula by up-fronting ethnic identity. Germans for Germany, Italians for Italy, etc. Yet this formula was by no means unproblematic. First, there were definitely Germans outside of Germany – the state Bismark made – and there were definitely Germans who weren’t ethnically German inside of Germany. Secondly, the same wave that resulted in the founding of these states resulted in some quasi-democratic form of governance – a Reichstag or Parliament – which gave non-ethnics certain rights to political expression and pathways to governance.

We know how the story went in Europe.

In the U.S., the person who did the most to amplify and internationalize the “self-determination” talk was Woodrow Wilson. Indeed, Wilsonian language is still used when the claim is that Jews – or Palestinians, or Hutus, or Japanese, etc. – have a “right” to self-determination. Although the fact that Wilson was a racist president, which was repressed by the old, liberal mainstream view of American history is now out in the open, we don’t see how that racism permeated his internatlonal outlook. But the man who thought Birth of a Nation was a historically accurate film was the same man who thought ethnicities had special rights. Through the Wilsonian lens, the founding of the U.S. was especially a matter of White Christians. The Pat Buchanan/Trump view of American history is a direct descendent of the Wilsonian ideology.
The romantic nation-state seems to follow an inexhorable logic, in which the very liberatory culture that accompanied the founding of the state is sooner or later alienated from the power establishment that runs the state. That power establishment, in turn, begins to attack that liberatory culture as anti-German, or anti-Italian, or anti-American – or anti-Jewish, or anti-Palestinian. Not to get all Hegelian here, but the history of the last two centuries does seem to show that there is a logic here, or at least, that the structuration leads to similar results.
This all seems obvious to me. But maybe it isn’t obvious to everybody. I don’t know.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Treptow Park

 We went to the Soviet war memorial at Treptow Park expecting Soviet kitsch. It turned out to be a curiously moving site. The memorial is most noted for a giant statue depicting a soldier with a sword, holding a baby, or being held by a baby, which surmounts a smaller stone space, a sort of hypertrophied hut.  The soldier faces (at a field’s distance) two pinkish red marble walls, which are separated by a space. There is a series of steles depicting various scenes of war and peace that make their way on the edge of the field between the wall and the giant statue.
None of this seemed in bad taste, or in some non-synchronicity with the event commemorated – the massive war between the Soviets and Nazi Germany that ended in the ruins of Berlin in 1945, when the German army finally surrendered.
In the 90s, it was considered in bad taste to prefer the Soviets to the Nazis. The moral equivalency argument, which had started on the far right in Germany, triumphed after the wall fell.
Of course, that is utter bullshit.
I’ve been reading Anthony Beevor’s account of the final push and the “battle of Berlin” since I’ve been here. Beevor’s account is famous for finally putting into the scales the massive number of rapes committed by the Soviet troops. This was a moral advance in historiography: military history has almost completely avoided the subject of rape, even though rape has been weaponized in all wars.
However, along with the moral enlightenment comes a certain puzzling moral blindness. While fully willing to lay the blame for the rapes on the Soviets, Beevor doesn’t spend much time pondering the terror bombing of the German cities, and in particular, Berlin. In the moral calculus, the Nazis and the Soviets get very bad marks, while the allies fall back into that comfortable category of military history, the advance of a number of divisions. In fact, though, those Allies were advancing through civilian casualties of at least 600,000; they were advancing through the deliberate destruction of cities, and their residences, which were all openly part of the Allied war plan, much more so than the Soviet quasi-approval of rape.
I myself have no doubt that the right side won in WWII. Whether it should have been fought at all is a question that goes back to WWI – the truly unnecessary war. If Vladimir Lenin had been the head of Russia in 1914 rather than Czar Nicholas, or if the governments had listened to the socialists, led by Jaures, and its radical wing, led by Trotsky and Lenin, WWI would never have happened – which would have meant that WWII never would have happened. Instead, the momentum of the 1900s and 1910s, which was with the Left, was broken, never to be fully recovered again.
Beevor, I should make clear, feels that the campaign of rape is morally important without feeling, therefore, that the Soviets and the Nazis were morally equivalent – which I take to be, logically, the idea that it would not have made a moral difference if the Nazis had won. 
Of course, the argument that the radical right made in the 70s in Germany, which you can now see casually sprayed across the New York Review of Books, as if it were obvious, was the argument of America First in 1939/1940. A group with which, I believe, Trump’s father was involved. But the same bien-pensant liberals who find Trump shameful have gone along with finding Trump historically justified. Such is the price of keeping in place a neo-liberal order that has to justify itself with larger and larger historical revisions. Otherwise, one has to question how we came to a place where the top ten percent own more than the bottom seventy percent, and how the top 1 percent own more than the next nine percent, and so on. Put it on a graph and label it: world-historical fuckup.
But I digress. The Soviet memorial is a quiet place, much quieter than the argument I am making above. There is something to be said for the aesthetic continuity of muscularity between the fascists and the communists. In the U.S., we confine the bulging muscles to the comic book and to action movies. But the monumentality, the bowed heads, the sense of human waste and exhaustion – this is what the memorial, in its entirety, conveys well. I expected something triumphal. What I found was something elegiac.

One of the more memorable spots in Berlin.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Walter B. and me

Me on Walter Benjamin's lost Berlin here: http://bookandfilmglobe.com/creators/dreaming-of-walter-benjamin-on-walter-benjamin-platz/

Thursday, August 09, 2018

on titles

Adam has made up a game. He comes up to me and in a confiding whisper he says, Dad, do you know what the title of my next book is going to be? So I guess, sometimes. I say: the toothpaste vampire. Or I say, The monster that ate the donuts. Then Adam will tell me. The books Adam is going to write are all scary stories. Horror stories. He is in the throes of a love affair with being scared; and especially, being scared by R.L. Stine. The goosebumps series, the innumerable spin-offs – Adam just loves them. J’adore R.L. Stine, he’ll say. The titles he comes up with are Stine-esque, if not stolen outright from the master. Like: The Werewolf of the Swamp. Sometimes I’ll remind him that the title is already taken.
Yet Adam isn’t totally wrong. Titles exist in a strange no-man’s land in IP law. Although trademark claims are made for businesses (some Chicago restaurant was in the news recently for, absurdly, sending threatening letters to all organizations using the word “Aloha”, which the restaurant claims as trademarked), there seems to be a lot of elbow room in the title field. You can look up a popular title-ish word – say, Possession – and you will find half a dozen novels with that title. On the other hand, you will only probably find one Mansfield Park, or Mrs. Dalloway. It is hard to tell, in this labyrinth of the claimed and the unclaimed, what the rules are.
Even  though I do not remember talking about titles with Adam, his fascination with titles mirrors my own. I am a title dreamer. I love to jot down potential titles for books or articles, and I can almost see the future spirits of those books or articles flock around (spirit, is this a book that may be, or that must be?). There is a poetry of the title – and, of course, where there is poetry, there is mostly bad poetry. Many, many bestselling books bear embarrassing title names, adducing blue, infinitely, passion, love like a barker with Tourette’s syndrome (hey, is that the title of a future detective novel?).  These title suffer from Hallmarkitis, and even when they get good reviews, it takes a certain pause before one can pick them up.
But whose titles are these? We think of the title and the book as signed by the same maker. In fact, titles are where agents and publishers like to play. They are always suggesting that titles be changed, because they have a belief in what is marketable that is quite odd when you think that they are always calling for something totally original – as long as it is like everything else. The vulgar version of the death of the author has some strong evidence when it comes to titles.
Certain titles, though, seemed signed by the author. Mrs. Dalloway. Sense and Sensibility. The Great Gatsby – okay, I included the last one as a ringer, because this was not Fitzgerald’s first pick for the title. But he was persuaded away from Trimalchio in West Egg, thank God. Some titles give off an odd and enigmatic light – they are the answer to a riddle that is posed by the book. Supremely, this is the case with Ulysses. Joyce doesn’t tell you, hey, this book translates the Odyssey in some ways to a June day in Dublin. But the title tells you something is up. I remember the Modern Library classic, with that huge U – that stately, plump U – which I loved, and which might have kicked off my love of titles.

The medievals derived title from Titan, according to Thomas C. Stillinger: “According to Servius the term tutulus (title) comes from Titan, that is, the sun, either by a process of diminishing or by comparison. It is said to come through diminution because the lifht of that work is small in relation to the whole sun; by comparison [because] just as the rising sun gives light to the whole world, so the title illuminates the work that follows.” Thus, Nietzsche’s Morgenrote is a sort of entitled title, and the rays illuminate the whole disparate system of the numbered. But does every book deserve to be a planet upon which a sun, or title, rises? Are titles necessary? Should this little scrawl have one?


Saturday, August 04, 2018

Elizabeth Nietzsche: the original Trumpite!

Weirdly enough, amidst all the reporting about the conspiracy theories of Trumpites and their ferocity against the “fake news”, nobody is making the obvious connection with Nietzsche’s sister.
So I guess it falls to yours truly – again! – to take up the task.
It all goes back to a visit paid by Harry Graf Kessler to Nietzsche’s sister in 1921. Cut. Here we need to paste in a description of Harry Graf Kessler. This guy was the Zelig of his time. He knew everyone, from Hindenberg to Georg Grosz, and he was everywhere. He was rich. He financed avant garde art, hobnobbed with communists, and got himself the fuck away from Germany once Hitler took over. He put it all down in his diaries, which are fascinating even if you don’t know all the characters. If you want to know what the Cabaret era was like – the giant Kit Kat club of European artists, scroungers, heirs and heiresses, communist journalists, pacifists, sex reformists, nudists, psychoanalysts, surrealists, etc. – read In the Twenties, the translation of his diaries. End of paste, back to:
Nietzsche’s sister! As every fan of Nietzsche knows, his sister, Elizabeth, was despicable on every level. A Wagner groupy – wife of an anti-semitic conman – object of Nietzsche’s own contempt – and keeper of the poor goof once he went supposedly crazy just because he mistook a beaten cab driver’s horse for Richard Wagner – and I’m with him on this one. His last decade was spent in a gloomy catatonia, while his sister enjoyed, unexpectedly, the celebrity that came with his books. Nietzsche caught on, but he never got to enjoy being the fin de siècle’s favorite kind of dynamite.
End of story, horrible woman, who like many horrible people, lived forever. She even lived up to the 1930s and got to welcome Hitler to her Nietzsche museum.
Now, back to the early twenties. At this time, radical right soldiers and cops roamed the streets, attacking leftwingers, and killing quite a few. The courts, which the Weimar government did not reform, were filled with sympathetic judges, who let them off. As so often, look to the judicial system for nourishing reaction.
But the rightwingers didn’t like being identified as murderers. One of the rightwingers killed Germany’s minister, Walter Rathenau, because he was a social democrat and a Jews. Hence this vignette:

Afternoon with Frau Förster-Nietzsche. A very unrefreshing political conversation, that she introduced when she told me she feared for my life from the side of the Bolsheviks “who also let Rathenau be murdered”. This absurd nonsense, which Ludendorff in an interview with the ›Daily Express‹ loosed upon the world a few days ago, is, for her, an undoubted fact, because “assassination is not a German kind of thing”.
Thus tasteless lies are now disseminated by old German nationalist ladies, in order to shield themselves from the taint of murder! I told her my opinion, which led to a rather excited argument, without diminishing in the least her belief on the purity of the German nationalist soul or shaking the idea of the communist masterminding of Rathenau’s murder.
I introduced into the conversation the fact, among others, that firstly, the righ radicals have up to now murdered around five hundred Leftist activists since the Revolution [which kicked out the Imperial government] came to a close. Were all these inspired by the communists or the Bolsheviks? Secondly, that we have never seen a Bolshevik provocateur tried for the murder of a rightwinger, or even be named in any case. Thirdly,  that even the countless weapon reserves of the “German Security and Resistance Union”, the “E Organization”, etc. must then be derived from Bolshevik plotting, since they were also involved in the intention to attack and murder.  
One is ashamed to have to contradict such absurdities. The good old woman spoke about the rightwing radicals only as “we”! “

I imagine similar conversations have been held in many a household, as sane family members confront the good old fox watchin’ parents.

I think Trump needs to shout out Elizabeth Forster Nietzsche. She was his kind of woman.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Rico capitalism- flashback to the Bush-Obama era

The recent death, or euthanasia, of the New York Daily News, with the attendant plutocratic criminal behind it, reminds me of this piece I wrote back in 2009. Enjoy!


“Now he's got Paulie as a partner. Any problems, he goes to Paulie. Trouble with a bill, to Paulie. Trouble with cops, deliveries, Tommy... ...he calls Paulie. But now he has to pay Paulie... ...every week no matter what. "Business bad? Fuck you, pay me. Had a fire? Fuck you, pay me." "The place got hit by lightning? Fuck you, pay me." Also, Paulie could do anything. Like run up bills on the joint's credit. And why not? Nobody will pay for it anyway. Take deliveries at the front door and
sell it out the back at a discount. Take a 200 dollar case of booze and sell it for one hundred dollars.
It doesn't matter. It's all profit.”
– Goodfellas

The merger of good business practice and racketeering in the 00s was embodied by the private equity firm, which made the Mafia look like punks. Two hundred dollar cases of booze were nothing when you buy a company with money you borrowed with your potential purchase as capital, thus adding the company’s cost to you to the company’s total debt load, from which – because you have been so successful! – you paid yourself a management fee, and then appointed undertakers to break the balls of any of the employees who’d been there long enough to, say, get a pension, or to have an emotional stake in the company’s success – deadwood, in other words; then you sell off the parts of the company that are working, which earns the management company, those private equity sweethearts, another management fee; and finally lead the company into bankruptcy, thus screwing the banks and the investors, the latter of which had been sitting on the sidelines swallowing pap about the efficiencies brought to the company by the private equity junta. Having followed the fuck you – pay me! Business plan, the private equity partners have long moved on, although not before putting a proper legal distance between the business they picked apart and the consequences.

Mattress companies, shoe companies, if it lives and breaths, if it produced value, if it employed people and was the result of honesty, toil, and the identification of the employees – well then, it deserved, from the racketeering rational choice point of view, to be fucked.

That was the trade – the bright side was that it got the thumbs up from economists, politicians, everybody in the know, all the bright ones in our Bush-Obama culture. You know, the ones who have shoved so much shit down our throats that we have gotten to like it, that it just seems normal to wake up with that taste of plutocratic turds in our mouths, it is just who we are, it is just what living in the Do Tread on Me Nation we call home is all about.

That this was done to Readers Digest sorta figures. Symbols are attractors, and what better symbol for a brisk deathmarch through the valley of the shadow of fuck you than the magazine that, in its humble way, embodied conservative middle brow Cold War culture? The army jokes, the first person accounts of American heroism, the vocabulary builder, the Cold War rants about all the usual topics: drugs, Communism, delinquency. Plus the condensed books, Ultra-Moderne – much like Campbell’s Condensed soups, showing that the process of assembly line production could be applied to the novel. It was a sign of middle class tastelessness – of working for the Middle Brow man - to have bookshelves full of Readers Digest books – in my family, we certainly did. I eagerly went through those books when they came, laughed at the humor in uniform, built my vocabulary with the vocabulary builder, and learned the anti-Communist facts of life. Ronald Reagan’s biographers say that he was an earnest reader of the Digest, and he often quoted from it – which makes sense. In a sense, Reagan embodied the whole RD ethos.

Including the reversal of what you would expect a conservative company to do. Just as Reagan’s experience of the only business he ever knew – the movies – gave him a, to say the least, skewed notion of the relation between labor and business, Reader’s Digest evidently treated their employees, in the HQ in Chattaqua, NY, with the kind of princely beneficence that would have softened Karl Marx’s heart. The Sunday NYT story about the decline and fall of the magazine includes this anecdote about the owners, DeWitt and Lila Wallace: 

Al Perruzza, now a senior vice president, recalls a dinner in the early ’70s at which Mr. Wallace rose, clanked a glass and announced that, effective Monday, everyone at Reader’s Digest would get a 10 percent raise. He sat for a moment, conferred with Mrs. Wallace and then stood up again.
“My lovely wife doesn’t think that’s enough,” he said. “So effective Monday, it’s 15 percent.”
He rose a third time and announced a cost-of-living increase.
“We had spent literally weeks preparing a budget,” Mr. Perruzza says with a grin. “I was sitting with the president of my division. The guy went ashen.”

As the NYT tells the story, Readers Digest, back then, was an incredible cash cow – much to the Wallace’s amazement. Having figured, when he began the business, that he could make as much as 5,000 dollars per year, DeWitt and his wife were rather stunned by how much they really did make:

“By 1929, circulation stood at 290,000 subscribers and brought in $900,000 a year — more than $11 million in inflation-adjusted dollars — according to “American Dreamers,” a book about the Wallaces. By the 40th anniversary of Reader’s Digest, Time tallied up the magazine’s achievements: 40 editions, in 13 languages and Braille, and the best-selling publication in Canada, Mexico, Spain, Sweden, Peru — and on and on. Total worldwide circulation was 23 million.”

So they did things like make their Chappaqua campus a nice place to work by hanging art on the wall: "Paintings by Picasso, Monet, Degas,Matisse, Renoir and van Gogh — museum-worthy décor was just another perk of working for a publishing phenomenon, one that sold millions of magazines and books a year, a readership rivaled only by the Bible. Although comparing sales of the scriptures to those ofReader’s Digest has always been unfair, because, as The New Yorker noted in 1945, “the Bible had a head start.””

That art, seen by the 3,000 employees and their family members, has now, of course, been stripped (“Take a 200 dollar case of booze and sell it for one hundred dollars. It doesn't matter. It's all profit.”). In the place of those paintings – o symbol calls to symbol, the worm that turned calls to the mindboggling serfs we are today! - we have this:
“…the walls are dominated by inexpensive prints and lots of corporate propaganda.
That’s right: corporate propaganda. Posters in the corridors of this mostly empty building trumpet something called the FACE plan, an acronym for fast, accountable, candid and engaged. One poster offers simplistic how-tos for running a meeting. (“Ensure that the right people are at the table.”) Another is headed with the words “Vision Statement” and uses lots of empty white space to underscore the point: “We will create the world’s largest multiplatform communities based on branded content.”
That mantra, and all the posters, are the brainchild of Mary Berner, the kinetic former president of Fairchild Publications who landed here with the backing of Ripplewood Holdings, the Manhattan private equity firm that orchestrated the debt-fueled takeover of Reader’s Digest.”

Our fast, accountable and engaged Mary, at a modest 125,000 a month, has surrounded herself with a coterie of “blondes” – as they are called by the stunned remnant of RD culture – to ‘reconfigur[e] the innards of the company’ – as NYT says, building up our biz vocabulary. Reconfigure – strip what isn’t nailed down, burn employees, create on-line presence.

It is a heartwarming story, this, the rescue of Readers Digest, with Ripplewood Partners throwing the company a big life preservers, made out of lead, after RD fell on hard times post-9/11. It wasn’t just that Readers Digest had been rendered rather useless by the internet. It was also that the Feds shut down RD’s sweepstakes. That killed the company with its base. It is one thing to have the condensed works of Taylor Caldwell on your shelves, but quite another not to have a shot at winning the sweepstakes. Underneath the idea of earning your money, we all long for the main chance. Ripplewood saw the bleeding, and stepped in to suck the creature dry.

“Ripplewood, led by Tim Collins, its chief executive, saw turnaround opportunities as well as a chance to roll up the fund’s own media properties, including Time Life Inc., the direct-marketing company that was formerly part of Time Warner. Ripplewood put in $275 million of its own money and had a bunch of partners, which included Rothschild Bank of Zurich and GoldenTree Asset Management of New York.
But the $2.4 billion deal piled so much debt onto Reader’s Digest’s balance sheet that it tripled the company’s interest payments, to $148 million a year. The Great Recession hurt ad sales, of course, and devastated sales of direct-marketed books. Instead of the single-digit percentage growth in revenue that Ripplewood was banking on, revenue declined.
In January, the company laid off 300 people, about 8 percent of its staff.
But even with those measures, the company did not, as Ms. Berner might put it, make its number. In August, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.”

And, finally, when there's nothing
1 left, when you can't borrow
another buck from the bank or buy
another case of booze, you bust
the joint out.



making rolls of toilet paper being kneaded into long rolls
with Sterno.


HENRY AND TOMMY shoving wads of Sterno paper into the
ceiling rafters.

You light a match.