Friday, April 17, 2015

an analysis of competition for amateurs

There is a story told about the psychoanalyst DW Winnicott. He was talking to a meeting of clergy. One of them asked him how they should decide whether someone who comes to them for counseling should be sent to a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst. Winnicott memorably said: “If a person comes and talks to you and, listening to him, you feel he is boring you, then he is sick, and needs psychiatric treatment. But if he sustains your interest, no matter how grave his distress or conflict, then you can help him alright.”

I think Winnicott’s criteria for separating sick and problematic characters can be extended to what the essayist’s “expertise” is. If, as an essayist, you are dealing with a topic that is boring you, probably it needs to be sent to a specialist. But if it is problematic and fascinating, then you can deal with it.
Lately, the topic that I have been itching to write a mini-essay on is “competition”. Competition is one of the colorless words of our time. To be colorless is to be over-understood – so understood that one loses touch with what, exactly, the sense of the concept is.
For instance: the other day I was reading, in the New York Times, a story about “terror birds” – massive birds that lived tens of millions of years ago and that, when laying down and dying, as a favor to paleontologists of the future, left gorgeously articulated fossil remains. As in any story about a now extinct species, the coda has to involve how they became extinct.  In this case, as the story had emphasized how the terror birds prayed on the incipient mammalia, all rodent like beasts, at the time, we had a vague stake in their existence and disappearance.

The fossil adds to the diversity of terror birds and raises new questions as to why they went extinct two and a half million years ago.
Since the species varied in size and weight, terror birds maynot have died out because of an inability to compete with placental mammals, assome researchers have suggested, Dr. Degrange said.

Dr. Degrange has my respect for rejecting the colorless explanation that would have satisfied the NYT mindset, which is all about competition being good for everything, the very vehicle of progress.
That sentence did make me think that it might be nice to see how competition crept into the worlds of natural history and moral philosophy (economics division). I am going to write a bit more about this.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Spitting out the Bittner taste in my mouth

During his lifetime, Gunter Grass opposed the Vietnam war, the emplacement of Cruise Missiles on German soil, the two Gulf Wars and the triumphalist mood after the fall of the Wall. Naturally, this is the type of character that the NYT editorial board collectively takes dumps upon. Now that he is dead and the obituaries pour in, it is a wonderful time for “contrarianism”, so they publish an incredibly boobish op ed piece by a German they’ve been favoring lately with deadtree space, a cat named Jochen Bittner,  an editor for Die Zeit who was last seen in the NYT pontificating like Charles Krauthammer that the West has to seize the Moral Leadership of blah blah blah.
So he’s the NYT gunman on the spot. Here’s a couple of unintentionally hilarious grafs about his Grass problem:

"I was able to pinpoint my frustration only when I met Mr. Grass in person. A couple of months ago he came from his home in Lübeck, on the Baltic coast, to visit my newspaper’s office in nearby Hamburg. The conference room was packed: Everyone — editors, assistants, interns — all crowded in to see this living legend. Although I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with mixed emotions about the man, the atmosphere was one of near complete adoration. It was the kind of secular worship that I expect no younger author will ever experience, even if he or she wins a Nobel.
Your generation has had it pretty easy, I wanted to blurt out. You grew big in times when strong ideology and determined judgment counted more than the hard work of examining what is actually going on around us. The way you saw the world counted more than the way it actually was. And there was always a lot of self in your righteousness….
I wanted to say all of this, in front of my enraptured colleagues. But I didn’t dare.”

So, we have Bittner, deciding that he represents his generation in Germany (although I’m pretty confident most of his generation has never heard of him) touting the old conservative rap about the “left wingers” but not daring to even speak up before his colleagues.
Luckily, though, he has a lot of that dissident courage in retrospect. So, the man who couldn’t disturb a confab with a famous author is more than willing to use the confession of that famous author that when he was 17, he was conscripted into the Waffen SS to say na na boo boo– and that is supposed to pop Grass’s moral bubble.
So what is the contrast here? It is a contrast of confessions, of Grass's and Bittner's. It is a contrast of unconsciousnesses. Are we supposed to think Bittner, under a regime that would put you in a concentration camp for writing anti-nazi grafitti in a bathroom, would have calmly told the Nazis to fuck off when they came for his counterfactual teen self in 1944? Well, of course he would. Like Mighty Mouse, he would give them the old one two and they'd fall back astonished. Then he'd leap over a few recently bombed buildings.

. Grass was a thoroughly Nazified teen, no doubt, and to my mind, this is one of the sources of his authenticity – he could see, unlike a rightwing critic like Joachim Fest that what was attractive about Naziism was also what was wrong with it - the whole ideology of strength, of toughness, of leadership, decisionmaking, contempt for relativism, absolute faith in what the established power thinks is right or wrong.. Fest  of course began the rant about Grass’s hypocrisy that is echoed in the Bittner piece, even though Fest himself had volunteered for the Wehrmacht, which he claimed was not responsible for any atrocities against Jews - at best, a delusive belief. At the time of Grass's confession, much was made about his  condemnation of Reagan's visit to Waffen S.S. graves. Pat Buchanan, for instance, had his word about it. The weaselish echo wends its way into Bittner's prose.

Bittner does represent one part of his generation – the upper class twits. When Fest wrote his bio of Hitler in 1973, what he was imagining was how nice it would have been if the Weimar leftists had been swept out with a little less anti-semitism - that is, if only Hitler had been Pinochet! It has long been a popular position among the twit set. Bittner is an opportunist of the first water, and I imagine a counterfactual 40 year old Bittner in 1944 he would have elbowed his way into some Deutsche think tank using the same networking methods he's so successfully employed in Merkel's Germany.   He’s a big product of the neo-con network,  EU section, with his positions with the German Marshall fund and his special relationship to Merkel’s Foreign Affairs office.  His embedness has been the subject of some fun in Germany, getting prominent play on the satirical show, Die Anstalt, which published his and his editoreit (Joffe)’s links with various think tank groups - and in Joffe's case, lobbyists. Of course, these two are prominent supporters of the American foreign policy line vis a vis Ukraine.   Bittner and Joffe sued, and lost the case – although the court gave two points to Bittner for one line in the broadcast. Anstalt seems to have been inspired by the wonderful French documentary, Les Nouveaux chiens de garde, which chopped up the purveyors of conventional wisdom in the media and showed their connection to various plutocrats and corporations.

Although the NYT considers itself an avenging God when it comes to those terrible left wing intellectuals in Europe, the Bittner piece seems to me to redound to Grass’s credit. If he repulsed such repulsive critters as Bittner, he must have been doing something right.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...