Thursday, April 27, 2023

corruptions of empire - the case of Sean McElwee


In his essay, The New York Gold Conspiracy, about the exploits of those great American rogues, Jay Gould and Jim Fiske – the former likened to a spider, the latter a comic giant who never told the truth (so as to keep in practice with the lying), Adams has some Gibbonesque fun with the Erie Railroad, the corporate entity that those two swindlers controlled. It employed 15,000 people, and 773 miles of road in all. And it was bound to the direct control of its owners: “Over all this wealth and influence, greater than that directly swayed by any private citizen, greater than is absolutely and personally controlled by most kings, and far too great for the public safety either in a democracy or in any other form of society, the vicissitudes of a troubled time placed two men in irresponsible authority ; and both these men belonged to a low and degraded moral and social type. Such an elevation has been rarely seen in modem history. Even the most dramatic of modern authors, even Balzac himself, who so loved to deal with similar violent alternations of fortune, or Alexandre Dumas, with all his extravagance of imagination, never have reached a conception bolder or more melodramatic than this…”

Adams  insight – that the extent of the control of wealth by private agents has a direct bearing on both public safety and democracy – has long been lost in the liberal logrolling that allows vast fortunes free range while extolling the republics in which these matters go down as “democratic.”

Yet the liberal is right in being, at least, relativistic – there are degrees of anti-democracy. Adams was describing the start of the Gilded Era – gilding being fake gold, a counterfeit value, bling that is always too showy – hence, bling bling. As counterfeit value becomes the standard of value, corruption becomes less a marginal inroad on the law and more the structure around which law is built.

The American 21st century is an amazingly resplendent blingheap of corruption, from a Supreme Court in which justices plea that they are not bribed when they receive bribes from the rich because they are congenital prostitutes for the wealthy anyway to war profiteers who are never punished for their mercenary crimes and use the money they make to buy media and politicos to crypto currency (pseudo currency) frauds who purchase key members of both parties to ram through legislation to legalize their systematic thievery. I recommend highly the Washington Post’sexcerpt of a book by Ben Terris, which concentrates on an operative named SeanMcElwee – a man who went from libertarian right to progressive radical to reactionarycentrist, a panoply of causes he would discard at will, in service ultimatelyto the one thing he cared about, gambling. This kid, for he has still not breeched his twenties, became, briefly, a powerful wheeler dealer among Dems in Biden’s first two years. Lord knows, he was a tyro of bad takes, which is powerfully attractive to the centrist mindset – but what set him apart is that he would take polls for his Dem clients and used them to make bets about the outcomes of elections. The latter was his passion. Perhaps in order to have more to gamble, he secretly set up a polling outfit for Sam Bankmen-Fried – and briefly went into the effective altruism cult. The polling outfit worked for a retired Republican senator.

The fun and games and mocking of legality here is all Sean McElwee’s business, but the opportunities were provided by the culture. America has as bad a political culture as you can have in a quasi-democracy. It is insanely dysfunctional, filled with passionate predators and egotists who race from think tank to cable news channel and generally try to make people unhappy and hateful. Unhappy and hateful people are great defences against doing anything about the malefactors of great wealth. That is what they are for. Corruption is not simply a perversion of a healthy system, it what the casino is built on.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

situation comedy, the good, the bad, and the "allegedly" rapist

 All happy families are situation comedies. All unhappy families are situation comedies, too.

This is the wisdom of television, I have been impressed with this wisdom for about three, four years – which is when we started ending our nights with Adam by watching a television series. One series at a time. We started with the Office, the American version, and we have worked our way through Schitt’s Creek, Brooklyn 99, Fresh off the Boat, and Blackish. Each time we have completed the entire cycle – partly because Adam is, as he puts it, a completist.
I’ve been perfectly happy with our choices, even if we all have various complaints about this or that show, gag, character, etc.
But our last choice threw me: Scrubs. Right away the music made me grit my teeth – the bastard children of alternate radio’s obsession with the Hooty and the Blowfish sound, the bane of the nineties. But more, I was thrown by the racism and the sexism. The racism was pretty much in your face – it was white liberal racism, jokey and nervous. And the sexism was on all levels.
The show has a voice over by the chief protagonist. These shows tend to a form that combines skit and parable – the narrator ends the show, almost always, with some moralizing reflections. I find that format uncomfortable. Blackish, another show we saw, also took this form. The problem with the protagonist drawing the moral for the viewer is that the viewer has to trust the protagonist. If the protagonist is creepy, however – as was the father in Blackish and the doctor in Scrubs – the moralizing ending seems more self-congratulation and rationalizing than clever and witty.
Work comedy series, from what I have seen, impose the family image on the work environment, while family comedies often bring work into the family. In Scrubs, the hospital becomes both a hunting ground of romance and a “friends” network. The romance introduces an incestuous element into the family metaphor. The comedy of transgression is, of course, something comedians are enormously proud of, as if they all came out of Lenny Bruce’s thigh. Transgressive comedy coming from highly paid white dudes in America, however, is going to be … well, what highly paid white dudes in America conventionally think. It is convention in the offensive mode.
That is written all over the character development in this show. The characters are unrelievedly creepy. This began to puzzle me. Usually, these shows go through my mind like water through a sieve. A few laughs, Adam is entertained, then brushing of teeth, reading, lights out. But Scrubs seemed extraordinarily strange. Though, like the Office, it was about saying the unsaid, unlike the Office, which used formal devices to distance us from the characters, this show used devices to get us to identify with characters who were, well, creepy. In one typical show, a surgeon makes a sexist joke, operating on a teen, and slips up, thus somehow destroying the hand mobility of said teen, who is on a scholarship to Julliard. The show ends on the moralizing note, with the surgeon telling the teen that it was his fault there was the little blip in surgery – but not of course that he was telling a joke when he made his bad move. And the viewer is given a little morality about the surgeon taking responsibility.
I was like, What?
So we decided to switch to another show, although Adam still wants to watch the season through of Scrubs. And I looked up stuff about Scrubs to see if my reactions were shared. Which is how I stumbled on the story of the man who wrote Scrubs episodes and got fired for obscure reasons: Eric Weinberg. A man who went from sitcom writers room to sitcom writers room, while “allegedly” raping eighteen women. The story in Hollywood Reporter is fascinating and very depressing – a sort of look into how the sausage (joke) is made. The cultural products of America go crazy – cause they are made in just this way.
An excerpt:
Weinberg’s longevity raises questions about what kind of behavior was accepted not only by his agency but in certain writers rooms. Though it was a different time, legislation barring sexual harassment — including conduct that creates a hostile work environment — had long been on the books. The definition of harassment in a writers room, however, has never been clear. Entertainment is a creative business, and it is accepted that writers must have the freedom to express raunchy or off-color ideas — a principle reinforced by the dismissal of a 2004 sexual-harassment lawsuit filed by an assistant in the Friends writers room. Several women who worked with Weinberg after that decision say they believe that the ruling emboldened men who were inclined to harass women.
However murky the definition of harassment, Weinberg’s conduct was enough to get him fired from Scrubs more than a decade before reporting on Harvey Weinstein launched the #MeToo movement. When news broke of Weinberg’s arrest, many former colleagues expressed horror, but not surprise. One female writer says that of all the men she’s worked with, “he was the shittiest and he was the most brazen. When I found out, I was disgusted, and it explained so much.”

Monday, April 24, 2023

imaginary lives

 Marcel Schwob’s preface to his Vies imaginaires makes a plea for the vita as art, instead of history. History, Schwob writes, aims at the general, and puts the stress in the meaning of human lives in their connection with greater events. For history, “all individuals have value only because they have modified events or made them deviate.” Art, on the other hand, “doesn’t classify; it de-classifies.”

The preface carries out the argument, such as it is, with brio. But the imaginary lives do not all carry out that de-classifying imperative. The life of Herostratus, for instance, distinctly lacks a certain detail – or rather, Schwob lacks a certain wonder at this detail.
Herostratus was famous, or infamous, for having torched the temple of Artemis in Epheseus. Schwob does an interesting, proleptic thing about Herostratus by describing him from the beginning in terms of the tortures to which he was subjected after his act. This proleptic magic act is nice. I applaud it. But then, when we read the end of the life, we get this:

“The twelve cities of Ionia forbad, on penalty of death, the announcing of Herostratus name to future ages. But the murmur has come just as far as us. The night when Herostratus torched the temple of Epheseus, Alexander, kind of Macedonia, was born.”

For those of us more historian than artist – or who reject Schwob’s division – there is much lost in that “murmur.” How is it that, somehow, the agent of this particular fait divers was able to avoid a suppression that seems, given the time, the lack of news save by messenger and singer, and the penalty, to have more appropriately submerged that pyromaniac fameseeker?
How do secrets get passed along?

Pessoa wrote an essay on Erostratus in English, which was discovered, like much of Pessoa’s work, after his death. The English is a bit brushed up and too too British, but Pessoa makes a deep remark about Erostratus’s, so to speak, existential figuration.

“His act may be compared, in a way, to that terrible element of the initiation of the Templars, who, being first proven absolute believers in Christ – both as Christians, and in the general tradition of the Church, and as occult Gnostics and therefore in the great particular tradition of Christianity, had to spit upon the Crucifix in their initiation. The act may seem no more than humanly revolting from a modern standpoint, for we are not believers, and, when, since the romantics, we defy God and hell, defy things which for us are dead and thus send challenges to corpses. But no human courage, in any field or sea where men are brave with mere daring, can compare with the horror of that initiation. The God they spat upon was the holy substance of Redemption. They looked into hell when their mouths watered with the necessary blasphemy.”
Pessoa no doubt read Schwob. The Templar story was, of course, a legend transmitted by way of the trials of the Templars, who were overthrown in a power struggle that sought justification, as so many do, in a courtroom padded with lies and crooked lawyers. But secret calls to secret – the initiation of the Templars was a secret kept within the group, and yet it forced itself out – a necessary blasphemy – to future generations.
It is hard to keep a secret. And it is hard to say why it is hard to keep a secret.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

journalism and protocol

I was talking to a friend the other day, and she said something that opened my mind. She was talking about a meeting she had gone to, and remarked that one of her colleagues there was talking to everyone in a tone that was out of protocol. It hit me then, this thing I have been puzzling over. The style of Le Monde.
The lead articles on politics in Le Monde, even more than the political reporting in the New York Times, have a curious tone. I guess it is the tone of the servant who is following the rules of protocol at the court. In such ceremonies, as we know from countless movies, there is not much room for maneuver. The names and titles on the list must be read out distinctly and smoothly. They are communication of a sort, but to who? Sometimes to the king, or the master of the revels, and sometimes to the assorted guests. But mostly, these people know each others titles and names.
Here, communication is subsumed in pomp. It is just this surplus of information that is the point. Just as the sorting procedure that organizes the names is the point. The guests and the royals are not going to listen to the names and the titles: they are listening to the tone, the music. It is the music of deference and hierarchy.
This is exactly the music of Le Monde’s lead articles about President Macron.
Here’s the entry on protocol on  Brewer’s Phrase and Fable”
“Protocol (pro' t5 kol). The first rough draft or original copy of a dispatch, which is to form the basis of a treaty; from Gr. proto-koleon, a sheet glued to the front of a manuscript, or to the case containing it, and bearing an abstract of the contents and purport. Also the ceremonial procedure used in affairs of diplomacy or on state occasions.”
There’s an interesting movement between, on the one hand, the rough draft as a supplement, and the procedure as a ceremony. Protocol survived the French revolutions, the Republics, Vichy, DeGaulle, 1968, the sexual revolution, Mitterand and the neoliberal turn. The political reporting in Le Monde is much like the “echoes” social columns that used to appear in all the Paris newspapers, reporting this or that aristocrat’s or plutocrat’s ball. It fills a space in which the uninvited reader is definitely an intruder, and the tone is such that the reader should be happy just to have gawking rights.
Protocol in the U.S. is of a more rough and tumble variety, but in D.C. society it has definitely formed its own music, its own inner and outer circles.
Macron, unlike other recent French Presidents, is a highly protocol oriented boy-man. He’s been in this business since he was weaned on the silver spoon – a much different background than, say, Sarkozy’s. In this way, as in so many others, he is most like the despicable Giscard D’Estaing. This comfort with protocol is something that Le Monde’s writers are ultra down with.
Take, for instance, the big story about the leg of Macron’s “pacification” tour in Ganges. Elsewhere in the world, on Twitter and TV, the big story was about that antithesis of protocol, the banging pot. The prefect of Ganges had forbidden “l’usage des instruments sonores portatifs” – the kind of interesting detail that historians of the micro-history school die for. In Le Monde, though, under the headline MACRON AUGMENT LES PROFESSORS ET LES CRISPE – the kind of nudgework that Macronites and Le Monde’s editorialists love – the first paragraph is like unto a court announcement.
For his second trip [deuxieme deplacement] after the promulgatin of the very contested reform of retirements, Emmanuel Macron chose to speak of education. This was done in the middle of a little circle of fifteen professors, students and parents, sitting the sunny courtyard of a rural Herault establishment, the college Louise-Michel de Gange, where he himself put an end to the suspense on the promised measures on wages for teachers.|
The exact number of people in a circle about the President, who is “putting an end to the suspense” regarding the compensation of teachers, is an almost too perfect figure of court society and reporting. “Put an end” to whose suspense? Not really anybody’s. Neither the fifteen people, nor the reporter, nor the reader are in suspense over the compensation proposed, as this has long been batted around. The professors are on edge – crisper – because the proposal is actually Sarkozy’s work more and make more in the realm of the sadly underinvested realm of public education. However, the subject matter here is of less importance than the style of announcing and describing what the case is.
I am not a man  on whom protocol sits very well. I like it sometimes, but I find it boring most of the time, and I find it an absurd approach to what is happening in France at the moment. However, day after day Le Monde plays the role of the valet leading out the order of the dances and putting an end to the suspense: for tonight’s fete, his highness has ordered a waltz!
Even twitter is better than this.  

Dial 0 for the operator, 1 for billing


Dial O for the operator, 1 for billing


Who invents? We repair, or we have the man

Bring his tools for a look-see. We aren’t familiar

With the specs,  the codes, the at-hand

Or have anything at our fingertips.


We have to back up, we miss the appointment.

We talk to the secretaries of those who have secretaries

Wondering who is holding when we are put on hold.

Are they the holders, really? Is this a hold up


That the Lord has made, we in his hands

He in our hearts, the hold em and fold em

Of gross contingency? Are we being

Offered muzak and headache again,


Like when we were  little girls in the back seat

When we had to go so bad

And mom said hold it

And we couldn’t, we couldn’t?

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 ...